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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: 1984

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After the heights of joy that our hero achieved through becoming a rock`n`roll musician, heights told in `Rebel Rebel` and `Rock`n`roll With Me`, he suddenly comes, in `We are the Dead`, to a realization that he is being used for sinister means. Life in Hunger City, as described in the opening tracks, is quite wretched, but also quite free. There is an authoritarian regime sitting high on Poachers Hill and overseeing everything, but in their daily lives, the citizens are free to roam as they wish. Now, our hero feels, the authorities are preparing to move in and take even greater control, creating a society like the one described by Orwell in 1984. He sets out to warn the people against the danger, through his music:

Someday they won`t let you, now you must agree
The times they are a-telling, and the changing isn`t free
You`ve read it in the tea-leaves, and the tracks are on TV
Beware the savage jaw
Of 1984

From `Rebel Rebel`, a party song that calls for lifestyle rebellion, he now switches to a more political song. This corresponds to the history of rock`n`roll, which became political only ten years after its inception, with the appearance of Bob Dylan. And Dylan is indeed invoked, but then cut up. In 1963, he warned those in power that "the times they are a-changing" and the people are rising up to express themselves and form a new and better world. In Bowie`s paraphrase, the times are a-telling, and they are telling that the changing is not an expression of freedom but is imposed from above, and that it is a change for the worse. Reversing the direction of Dylan`s warning, he is not warning the authorities that the people are rising up, but warning the people that the authorities are rising up. He further warns us that soon we won`t have the freedom to resist it, and we must wake up to the danger ("agree" with what he`s saying) now, because we can already see the signs of this new world order. What will this new world be like? It will be like Orwell`s 1984, where every action of your daily life is dictated by the authorities.

The image used for the warning – "beware the savage jaw" – keeps the dog theme going, and also expresses the realization that the dogs will be part of what brings about the change. Meaning, that the rock`n`roll of the diamond dogs, pretending to be a rebellion against the system, will actually be used by the system to advance its authoritarian agenda. We know that this line was part of the song even before the 1984 project transformed into the Diamond Dogs story, which suggests that it could have been this image that made Bowie choose dogs for his allegory.

They`ll split your pretty cranium, and fill it full of air
And tell you that you`re eighty, but brother, you won`t care
You`ll be shooting up on anything, tomorrow`s never there
Beware the savage jaw
Of 1984

Now he tells us in more detail what this new order will be like. "They`ll split your pretty cranium, and fill it full of air": the all-powerful authorities, using a combination of advanced technology and complete control of information, will turn you into an imbecile, unable to think for yourself and pose any threat to them. That is pretty much in tune with Orwell, but Bowie then adds a rock`n`roll age warning: "and tell you that you`re eighty, but brother, you won`t care". The youth culture of the sixties set itself apart from the adult world, claimed that being a grownup is worse than being dead, and glorified the years of youth when you can still go your own way and not be part of the system. In this future world, however, the system will make you think old, unable to change and rebel - but it wouldn`t matter to you anyway, because you won`t care anymore. "You`ll be shooting up on anything": they will supply you with drugs and other distractions to keep you happily sedated, and you will gobble it all up. And, just like in Orwell`s vision, they will make sure to remove any hope for the possibility of a different kind of life: "tomorrow`s never there".

Come see, come see, remember me?

We played out an all night movie role
You said it would last, but I guess we enrolled
In 1984 (who could ask for more?)
1984 (who could ask for more?)

Now he sets his thought backwards, to when he was having fun with rock`n`roll and teen rebellion. Back then, he thought the fun would last forever, but now he finds out that he was just playing the part ordained for him by the authorities. He realizes now that he was actually already living in a 1984 world, a world where all his actions are determined from above, but until now the control was hidden. Now, his role is over, as the system has become strong enough to make itself manifest, and overtly rule people`s actions. He realizes that he had no choice to begin with, and he couldn`t ask for more than those few hours of fun he got to enjoy.

I`m looking for a vehicle, I`m looking for a ride
I`m looking for a party, I`m looking for a side
I`m looking for the treason that I knew in `65
Beware the savage jaw
Of 1984

This verse puts the story in the real world, revealing that Diamond Dogs is actually a metaphor for our own existence. In the mid-sixties, fueled by rock`n`roll, he knew the pleasures of partying, rebelling, joyriding, taking sides, and everything that makes a man alive. Now, in the bleak atmosphere of the mid-seventies, Bowie feels that all these joys were lost, and conjectures that the sixties were just a theatre devised by the authorities to distract the people while they were advancing their new order. "Nineteen eighty-four" becomes more than a term that symbolizes a certain kind of society; it becomes an actual date, only ten years away, in which the Orwellian nightmare will actually become a reality. This is no longer rock`n`roll, this is a very paranoid form of disco.

We are not there quite yet. `1984`, just like the novel it borrowed its title from, is a prophecy and a warning, trying to set us on a different path. But when the final notes of the song fade out in an ominous fashion, we feel like the coffin door has been closed on us.

1984 was one of the earliest Diamond Dogs tracks to be written and was already featured on the `1980 Floor Show`, where it was paired with `Dodo`.

Being an early disco track, the song was also a good vehicle for Bowie`s next incarnation.

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