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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Suffragette City

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In the title of 'Suffragette City', Bowie conjures up the memory of an important chapter in the history of liberalism, the chapter of the Suffragette movement. The liberal dream is to reach a world where every human will be free and equal, and able to pursue their happiness, and the Suffragettes, who struggled for and managed to secure women's right to vote, took us one step closer towards fulfilling that dream. Well, now we are after the nineteen-sixties, another glorious chapter in the history of liberalism. How much have we done to advance the liberation of women, to achieve the mission that the Suffragettes bequeathed us?

Hey man, oh leave me alone, you know
Hey man, oh Henry, get off the phone, I gotta
Hey man, I gotta straighten my face
This mellow thighed chick just put my spine outta place
Hey man, my schoolday's insane
Hey man, my work's down the drain
Hey man, well she's a total blam-blam
She said she had to squeeze it but she... then she...

Our hero is a guy busy scoring with a chick (or maybe several chicks) who is an animal in bed. This was one of the victories of sixties liberalism, of the sexual revolution: it emancipated women from the Victorian perception that sex is something that they do only to please men, and allowed them to enjoy sex as well. The introduction of birth control pills in the fifties enabled women to have sex more freely, and by the early seventies, young women were aggressively sexual. Ziggy, as the next step in the sixties liberation, celebrates this development, in a piece of grinding cock-rock that is a paean to the sexual powers of women.

But there is also another side to the story. This promiscuity drags our hero into a world of sexual joys that leaves him with no time for anything else, and he sacrifices his friendships and his work to get more and more sex. Regularly, our lives are a combination of work and play, as Chuck Berry outlined in his rock'n'roll anthem 'School Days', in which the heroes are living in the tension between school's repression during the day and the release of dancing and making out during the night. The dream of youth culture was to get to a world where there's all play and no work, and here Bowie shows us such a world, where even the school days are insane. But that means that there is no tension and release, so the hero has to delve further and further into the world of carnal pleasures to get the same effect. In the process, he gives up on any other aspect of his life.

Oh don't lean on me man
Cause you can't afford the ticket
I'm back on Suffragette City
Oh don't lean on me man
Cause you ain't got time to check it
You know my Suffragette City
Is outta sight...she's all right

Again, this can be taken in two ways. As a straightforward celebration of sex, it describes the girls of the time as so wild that only a certain man, a man who has made the mental shift required by the sexual revolution, can handle them. The hero's friend is still stuck with the sexual inhibitions of the past, so he cannot come with him to this Suffragette City because he'd only slow him down. But it can also mean that our hero is becoming someone whose friends can no longer lean on, as he is too busy scoring. This Suffragette City is a place of sexual paradise for a man and it makes him forget about any other human value, betraying his friends and himself as he sinks further and further into it.

In short, it is another slice of Bowie's twofold edge. The song is celebrating the sexual revolution of the sixties, our new freedom, but at the same time hints that we are nothing but slaves to our base animal urges. It applies for women as well, of course: instead of trying to pursue the possibilities that the Suffragettes and their like have opened for them, they are squandering it all on immediate gratifications.

Hey man, oh Henry, don't be unkind, go away
Hey man, I can't take you this time, no way
Hey man, hey droogie don't crash here
There's only room for one and here she comes, here she comes

The final verse gives us more of the same, showing the hero discarding his male friends in favor of female companionship. The "here she comes, here she comes" is lifted from the Velvet Underground's 'White Light / White Heat', suggesting that he is about to get his mind blown. The mention of "droogie", however, makes it more sinister. "Droogie" is how Alex, the hero of A Clockwork Orange, refers to his gang mates as they go on their rampages of assault and rape. It suggests that our hero may be enjoying the free spirit of his female counterparts, but deep down he gives them no respect and sees them as nothing but objects to satisfy his desires. The sexual revolution proclaimed that it would bring more love to the world, but the world that Bowie portrays shows, or at least hints, that the guys have not made the required mental shift and instead of making love they are exploiting the freedom to give the ladies a "wham bam, thank you ma'am" treatment. There is no love here, just lust.

'Suffragette City', then, can be taken as an anthem for the sexual revolution, but also as a song about decadence, about betraying values for the sake of immediate gratifications. If we take the latter options, then it is an attack on the liberalism of the late sixties, which is endangering decades of feminist struggles. And as part of the Ziggy story, it shows us how the Ziggy cult, which started out as a "church of man love" in which no one was to be turned away on account of their sexual orientation, deteriorates into a tasteless orgy, in which any other kind of human ties are abandoned. The rush of the guitars and the ominous sax-sounding synth make for a great rock record, but evince a feeling of a culture hurtling towards its doom. During the album, we followed Ziggy's efforts to take us out of our miserable existence and lead us to a happy world. All his work is now down the drain.

Rockin' it with the Spiders...

'Suffragette City' was first offered to Mott the Hoople, a band that had the kind of droogie attitude it conveys. They turned it down, compelling Bowie to write 'All the Young Dudes' instead, and saving this one for Ziggy. Since then it has been covered many times by many acts, making the moniker 'Suffragette City' popular enough to be a adopted by many feminist writers as a title for their articles, returning it to its rightful place.

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