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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: We are the Dead

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With 'We are the Dead', the Orwellian theme that was covert throughout the Diamond Dogs story becomes overt. "We are the dead" is a recurring line in the 1984 novel, uttered by several characters, and it implies the absence of hope. The heroes realize that they have no hope of escaping their enslavement to the Big Brother state, and can only fight it in the hope that some day in the far future the human race will be free. But in the end, they find that even their "fight for freedom" was actually just another scheme arranged by the system, so that sort of hope is defeated as well. Humanity, in Orwell's world, is dead.

But of course, Bowie claimed in the earlier songs of the album that he did find a way out: rock'n'roll. Rock'n'roll is freedom, a pure expression of the spirit, a way to be alive. How does that fit with Orwell's vision?

Something kind of hit me today
I looked at you and wondered if you saw things my way
People will hold us to blame
It hit me today, it hit me today

'We are the Dead', I believe, is the first inkling we get of an onset of a certain paranoia in Bowie's mind, a paranoia that will plague it quite a bit in the following years and would find its way into statements he made in interviews. The hero of the story, who just sang "rock'n'roll with me" to his girl, is now (well, presumably, some months later) telling her a different story about rock'n'roll. "People will hold us to blame", he says. In blame for what?

"I believe that rock'n'roll is dangerous," said Bowie in an interview a year and a half later, "that we weenie boys with our makeup and funny clothes and whatnot, I feel that we're only heralding something even darker than ourselves. 'Cause we were never dark ourselves. We just bounded around the periphery. Lou is not evil. Iggy isn't evil. There's something else." And when asked for the nature of that dark thing he sees beyond the horizon, Bowie would answer: fascism.

Suddenly, Bowie begins to feel that maybe rock'n'roll is not all that good, that at the end of rock's rocky road there is a dark resolution. In the 1984 novel, the most powerful instance of the appearance of the phrase "we are the dead" is the moment when the system reveals itself, and the heroes realize that they have been doing its bidding all along. And the same thing happens to Bowie's hero, who realizes that while we think that we are fighting for freedom we're actually only bringing on a dictatorship and people in the future will hold us to blame for it.

We're taking it hard all the time
Why don't we pass it by?
Just reply, you've changed your mind
We're fighting with the eyes of the blind
Taking it hard, taking it hard

The hero realizes that "we're fighting with the eyes of the blind" – i.e. not aware of the consequences of our rebellion – and suggests to his lover that maybe they should forget about it all. Suddenly the rebellion doesn't feel like fun, but like a hard chore, and he considers passing it by. Alas, they are in too deep.

Yet now
We feel that we are paper, choking on you nightly
They tell me "Son, we want you, be elusive, but don't walk far"
Always breaking in the new boys, deceive your next of kin
For you're dancing where the dogs decay, defecating ecstasy

Bowie sings from the point of view of a rock star who came to realize that his rebellion is just serving the authorities. They have given him a longer leash, allowed him to be elusive, but only as long as he doesn't go too far. Thus, they give the young generation a semblance of rebellion, channeling its energy in a direction that would not threaten them. It is just a way for the authorities to break him (and his young followers) in, and remain in power. He thought that he was providing ecstasy that helps his next of kin (the dogs) to be alive and real, that turns them into diamond dogs that shine brightly, but he was actually deceiving them: what he is doing with his music amounts to defecating the ecstasy out of their system, while their spirit continues to decay.

You're just an ally of the leecher, Iocator for the virgin King
But I love you in your fuck-me pumps
And your nimble dress that trails
Oh, dress yourself, my urchin one, for I hear them on the rails
Because of all we've seen, because of all we've said
We are the dead

He keeps on expanding on his insights from this moment of clarity, but it is hard for him to keep it up, because he is distracted by the hotness of his girlfriend. Instead of true rebellion, we see here, rock'n'roll is providing distractions. And in the meantime, the system keeps growing stronger, waiting for the moment it can enslave us completely. He can already sense them coming to get us.

One thing kind of touched me today
I looked at you and counted all the times we had laid
Pressing our love through the night
Knowing it's right, knowing it's right

Now I'm hoping someone will care
Living on the breath of a hope to be shared
Trusting on the sons of our love
That someone will care, someone will care

This is very 1984. Those words could have been sung by Winston, the novel's hero, into the ear of his lover Julia. In the novel, they are both engaged in a prohibited affair of passionate love, knowing it's right, but also knowing that they are doomed to get caught; and all they can hope for is that in the future love will be permitted again and then someone will care about their sacrifice. The similarity between this passage and the spirit of the book suggests that it is the passage that served as the basis for the song, and from here, Bowie expanded and took it to other places.

But now
We're today's scrambled creatures, locked in tomorrow's double feature
Heaven's on the pillow, its silence competes with hell

The answer to the previous passage: there will be no future generation that will glorify our sacrifice. Instead, our story will be made into a cheesy movie, sold to the masses as another distraction. The heaven that we find in bed will remain silent, like the hell of the rest of our life.

It's a twenty-four hour service, guaranteed to make you tell
And the streets are full of press men
Bent on getting hung and buried
And the legendary curtains are drawn 'round Baby Bankrupt
Who sucks you while you're sleeping
It's the theater of financiers
Count them, fifteen 'round a table
White and dressed to kiIl

Around that time, Bowie also starts to talk in interviews about how we are being controlled and manipulated by the system. It is quite obvious that he was reading some conspiracy-theories literature, but he never bought into the idea that there are people sitting in a dark room somewhere and running our lives from there. The way he described it, it is more about the huge conglomerates of media, industry and government that have become monsters with lives of their own, run by rules which ultimately lead society, and our consciousness, down a certain road. That is what we get here in the unique and frightening imagery, a cut-up that is part-Orwell part-Burroughs part-Bowie-since-1967, which he developed for the album. It is basically a theatre and we are all playing the parts ordained for us while the system is slowly sucking the life from our bodies, gaining more power.

Oh caress yourself, my juicy
For my hands have all but withered
Oh dress yourself my urchin one, for I hear them on the stairs
Because of all we've seen, because of all we've said
We are the dead
We are the dead
We are the dead

It is reported that "We are the Dead" was at first considered as the title of the album, probably when it was still supposed to be a musical adaptation of 1984. It suggests that the main theme of the album was to be the decay of Western society and the death of the human spirit, another thing that Bowie was rapping a lot about in interviews of the time. But the story of the finalized album, as I see it, is not an adaptation of Orwell's narrative but a new story. I believe Bowie is commenting about our own society. Western society isn't as authoritarian as Orwell's world, but Bowie is suggesting that Big Brother is hidden in it as a potential and that we are – through our decadence, through the powerful systems we erected, through the distractions offered by consumer culture, through the subversive power of rock'n'roll – on our way to realizing that potential. In 1984, when the heroes "hear them on the stairs", it means that the cops of Big Brother's police-state have come to cease them; here, it means that Big Brother is making its move to take over and impose a police-state.

The final passage forms a split between our hero and his lover. He has already decayed and withered, and cannot stand up to Big Brother. But she is still "juicy", still full of vigor and life. He suggests that she stop caressing him as he is beyond salvation, and caress herself instead, think about keeping herself alive. In the context of the song, it says: not all of us are dead, some are still alive, so there is still hope that we will avert this dark destiny.

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