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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Moonage Daydream

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The opening two tracks of the Ziggy Stardust album tow the line that Bowie drew in his previous album, portraying contemporary human existence as a desolate spiritual wasteland leading towards decline. 'Moonage Daydream' explodes into the scene to provide the solution, to revitalize the human spirit and bring happiness. So what is the magical key to happiness, which could succeed where all religions and ideologies failed? Bowie's answer is: rock'n'roll.

It is hard for us to remember nowadays, when rock'n'roll is just another musical genre, what it once meant. But for many kids in the fifties and sixties, rock'n'roll was the essence of existence. "Till there was Rock, you only had God", sings Bowie in the Ziggy outtake 'Sweet Head', and at other times he referred to rock'n'roll as the substitute for the church. When you listen to early rock'n'roll stuff from the mid-fifties, you can hear it: the feeling of pure release and euphoria that emanates from the records, the sheer ecstasy that is every bit as powerful as religious ecstasy. It sounds like the singer's soul has been trapped in a little bottle all his life, and now breaks loose and fills the entire world with joy, lifting its listeners right up with it. But the rock'n'roll kids have also learned something else: this joy doesn't last forever. The wonderful sensations contained in mid-fifties rock'n'roll records died towards the end of the decade, and even those who originated them - like Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley etc. – could no longer reproduce them. The Beatles distilled this eruptive quality and brought it back, and others have managed to reproduce it as well, but by the end of the sixties it felt like true rock'n'roll was becoming ever more scarce. After psychedelia, rock'n'roll became rock, music that searched for eternal truths instead of temporary joys and "musical quality" instead of ecstasy. But for some, this meant that the essence was lost, and they wanted to return to the fervor of early rock'n'roll. For those, the question now became: What is the secret ingredient that produces the rock'n'roll ecstasy?

That must have been how Bowie felt, too. In the first version of 'Moonage Daydream', released in 1971 as part of the Arnold Corns project, the lyrics presume to resurrect that ecstatic quasi-religious rock'n'roll experience, but the record fails to live up to its presumption. It's not enough to just want it - you have to find the element that causes the ecstasy and express it. This, I contend, was the challenge that Bowie tried to overcome when he created his Ziggy Stardust persona. By 1972, Bowie finally discovered the missing ingredient needed to produce a real rock'n'roll sensation, and got 'Moonage Daydream' right.

'Moonage Daydream', in the Ziggy cut, bursts into the end of 'Soul Love', bringing back the eruptive power of rock'n'roll. And then come the four lines that try to break down the rock'n'roll phenomenon to its parts, and decipher its secret:

I'm an alligator

Above, I wrote that true rock'n'roll "sounds like the singer's soul has been trapped in a little bottle all his life, and now breaks loose and fills the entire world with joy, lifting its listeners right up with it". What it also brings on is a feeling of omnipotence, and in the late sixties, this was exhibited by rock singers in the form of proclaiming themselves to be some mythical, larger than life figure which suddenly burst out of their former selves: I'm Jumpin' Jack Flash, I'm a Voodoo Chile, I'm the Lizard King. "I'm an Alligator" continues this line, detonating its way through the depressed figure of the first two tracks, shedding it like dried skin to reappear in a shiny new guise. The actual image he chose, the alligator, is immaterial, and was probably chosen for the purpose of rhyming. What is important here is that he is an "allegator", someone who alleges to be something new.

I'm a mama-papa coming for you

And this new identity, rock'n'roll history teaches us, is not particular to just one individual. Whenever rock'n'roll broke, whenever some rock'n'roll star assumed a new identity and broadcasted it to the world, there were kids who identified with him and felt that he was expressing what they felt inside. Through imitating him, they could liberate themselves from their false identity and supplant it with an identity that felt real. Rock'n'roll is like being reborn, and the rock'n'roll star is the person performing this rebirth. The announcement "I'm a mama-papa coming for you" poses our rock'n'roll hero as a replacement for your parents, calling on any alienated kid to be reborn through identifying with him.

But does any form of rebirth induce a feeling of freedom and happiness? Can you simply choose an arbitrary new identity, and the rock'n'roll ecstatic sensation will immediately appear? Certainly not. There must be some principle behind the new self you are adopting, which will ensure that it does indeed generate rock'n'roll. What is that principle?

I'm the space invader

The third line provides the answer. Rock'n'roll is the space invader, the alien from another world. More precisely, it is something from your own world that behaves like an alien from another world. The artists who ignited the rock'n'roll experience were always those who combined elements of their own culture's music with sounds that came from a musical logic that was alien to it, and thus were able to express a sensibility that their own musical language was previously unable to express. When white boys like Elvis Presley and Bill Haley inserted elements of black R&B into white pop and country, they did something that went completely against the logic of their culture, because for white America in the fifties the black man symbolized the jungle, the thing that civilized persons should aspire to distance themselves from. So for most white folks it seemed like a step backwards for civilization, the beginning of its downfall. So Elvis, a white boy singing R&B, was something completely paradoxical and alien to the logic of the time, but for some white kids who were alienated to that logic and felt that R&B held some truths it failed to encompass, he was the first thing they could identify with. Similarly, when the Beatles combined English pop with American rock'n'roll they blew away all preconceptions of how Englishmen should behave, and the same thing happened when the Rolling Stones conflated Chicago blues and Mersey beat, or when Bob Dylan fused folk music with rock'n'roll - they all seemed at first like something that came from another world, something that was unheard of before. The rock'n'roll experience, then, happens when something that was previously banned from your culture finds a way to invade your cultural space, to present itself in a language that is understandable to you, and speak to something inside you that was always repressed. The rock'n'roll star is someone who comes from your own world, yet is also alien to it. When you identify with him, you feel like your inside erupts and takes over, smashing your old identity.

This also explains why the rock'n'roll sensation can be felt by many kids at once. It is not some individual "real self" that was locked inside and is set free. It is a shared sensibility, which is the result of cultural repression. The rock'n'roll star allows you to break the repression by identifying with him, and all those who do it feel the same liberation.

I'll be a rock'n'rollin' bitch for you

So what does rock'n'roll do? First of all it rocks you, constituting an alien invasion that attacks the foundations of your logic; but if you open up and succumb to it, it rolls you – you go through a transformation, and become someone else. When rock'n'roll became rock, music that only built on its own foundations, it lost that ability to come over as an alien and thus the ability to roll. And with that, it lost the ecstatic, joyous sensation that accompanies the breakout of rock'n'roll. "I'll be a rock'n'rollin' bitch for you" announces that Bowie intends to bring that transformative power back, to rock'n'roll us once again.

Within the framework of the album, 'Moonage Daydream' is of course the moment when Ziggy arrives, to take us out of the slump presented in the first two tracks. In concerts, Bowie would sometimes present it as "a song written by Ziggy". Ziggy, we see, is not necessarily an alien from outer space. He is rather someone who presents himself as an alien figure, larger then life, which the kids can identify with and be rock'n'rolled and reborn in the process.

And the terms "bitch" and "mama-papa" also point to one of the traits that make Ziggy an alien: his androgyny. In the logic of Victorian society, you were either a male or a female, and each gender had clearly defined characteristics. This logic repressed all those who felt that their sexuality was not that clear cut, those who had characteristics that were attributed to the opposite sex. To recreate the rock'n'roll experience, Bowie made Ziggy someone who breaks this oppression, presenting an identity that is sexually fluid and providing all those people with something they can identify with. In 'Queen Bitch', the hero was afraid to give in and become part of that alternative sexual world. Through Ziggy, Bowie himself becomes the (Rock'n'rollin') Queen Bitch, who draws the kids in.

Keep your mouth shut,
You're squawking like a pink monkey bird
And I'm busting up my brains for the words

In the first four lines, Bowie is trying to find words to express the essence of rock'n'roll. But like he already told us in 'Memory of a Free Festival', capturing the essence of ecstasy in words is an impossible thing to do, and these following lines seem to convey his frustration during the process. The "pink monkey bird" is an imaginary creature that signifies something really loud and bothersome, and here it probably means the entire outside world. When you are trying to find words to express your innermost feelings, everything else becomes a distraction, and seems like a pink monkey bird to you. Bowie is trying to shut out the outside world so he can reflect on these feelings.

Don't fake it baby, lay the real thing on me
The church of man love
Is such a holy place to be
Make me baby, make me know you really care
Make me jump into the air

The church of God-love promised us that through God we will find love, but as we saw in 'Soul Love', it failed. And so, Ziggy posits the church of Man-love in its stead, claiming that we have the ability to generate love by ourselves with no need for the mediation of God. When we are transformed through rock'n'roll, when our inside becomes outside, our masks fall, and we fuse together. All those who assume the identity of the alien now become as one, and feel the joy of love for one another.

We are reminded once again of 'Memory of a Free Festival'. There, Bowie assumed the role of a Hippie who tries to convince us that his way of life brings ultimate love, which draws in even aliens from outer space who come to bask in it. But the truth seeps in through his words, and we realize that this "love" is a feigned one. Here, Bowie finds the way to true love, by simply reversing the order: first of all the alien comes, liberating us from our alienated identities, and as a result, we can lay the real thing on each other, and dwell in the church of man love.

Keep your electric eye on me babe
Put your ray gun to my head
Press your space face close to mine, love
Freak out in a moonage daydream, oh yeah!

The chorus emphasizes the futuristic nature of the whole affair. To reach freedom, happiness and love, you have to recreate yourself as something completely new, something alien to everything that came before. But the title also hints that this perfect state is only temporary. Yet again we are reminded of 'Memory of a Free Festival', where we didn't reach the Sun, the symbol of truth, but settled for a Sun Machine, a technological replacement. The fact that this is a "moonage daydream" hints that we do not reach daylight, but remain in the dark moon-age. Nevertheless, we do create a temporary replacement of daylight, a daydream, and that is just as good.

The secret of rock'n'roll has been deciphered. Bowie is going to transform himself into something that appears otherworldly, and offer something new to the world. Once this realization has been made, it can be codified into bolts of electric current and sent into space where it is transformed into waves of glistening supersonic sound and then zapped back towards Earth to hit the unsuspecting antennas of millions of aimless kids who have no idea what is about to crack open their sky and reach down to them.

The 1971 version:

'Moonage Daydream' is Ziggy Stardust's anthem, and was a show stopper in every Ziggy show, allowing Ziggy & Ronno to get down and do their thang.

And it remained a show stopper for years to come, long after Ziggy...

1974:

1997:

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