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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Big Brother

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The Diamond Dogs story began with a picture of a desolate society, where the citizens find no meaning in their life. Then, their life is transformed by rock`n`roll and they find power, meaning and joy in it. After a while, though, we see that the joy is subsiding, and the meaning becomes questionable. What can they do to restore the heights they once knew?

Don`t talk of dust and roses
Or should we powder our noses
Don`t live for last year`s capers
Give me steel, give me steel, give me pulses unreal

The rock`n`rollers of yesteryear conclude that if they want to relive what they went through with rock`n`roll, they`ll need something more powerful, something that will hold. They dismiss the lifestyle of sex, drugs and rock`n`roll, where the joy is temporary, and look to erect something that will ensure that the joy remains forever.

He`ll build a glass asylum
With just a hint of mayhem
He`ll build a better whirlpool
We`ll be living from sin, then we can really begin

Every new gospel goes through this process. It starts with a messiah that presents a spiritual way of life, something that cannot be put into words but can only be felt. But then, his disciples try to capture this spirit in words and symbols and build a religious dogma on these foundations. Since the rock`n`roll gospel was about chaos and sex, the diamond dogs regard them as the foundations of joy, believing that if they can capture their essence and hold it in a certain place, they will be able to experience joy forever.

Please savior, savior show us
Hear me, I`m graphically yours
Someone to claim us, someone to follow
Someone to shame us, some brave Apollo
Someone to rule us, someone like you
We want you Big Brother, Big Brother

And, of course, they look for a leader, someone who will show them the way to this new world, someone who will force the dogma upon them. `Rebel Rebel` called for individual freedom; but in the end, we see now, this rebellion led the individuals to turn to hero-worship, and to give up on their individuality.

"Big Brother", in Orwell`s 1984, is the dictator that heads the society. His face is everywhere, and he is hailed as the hero that led the revolution against capitalism and brought about a socialist utopia. The citizens are brainwashed into loving and worshipping him and identifying with him to the point of self-annulment. Actually, we get the sense that he is not a real person at all, but just a symbol that the totalitarian regime has set up. The real ruler is the party, a party that presents itself as dedicated to the welfare of the people, but is actually interested only in power and domination. We are not told how they managed to get into power – when the novel begins, they already have it, and no one can remember what came before. Bowie fills in the blanks: Big Brother comes to power because that`s what most people want. Orwell, while showing great pessimism about human nature, still describes the Big Brother system as contradictory to it, defining this system as "a boot stamping on a human face". The heroes stand up against it, but by the end of the book are tortured and brainwashed to the point where they learn to love Big Brother. Bowie goes further: the nature of most of humanity is such that they want a Big Brother, they want someone who will claim them, shame them and make them feel small. In the end of his story, the people express their love for Big Brother not because they were beaten down into doing so, but because they choose to do so.

Bowie`s view of human nature was always this pessimistic. In 1969`s `Cygnet Committee`, he told the story of a revolutionary regime that uses humanistic ideals to become totalitarian and oppressive, in what can be viewed as a precursor to Diamond Dogs. In the same year he said in an interview: "you have to do your own `thing`, and if you haven`t got that awareness then you are not the kind of person who is going to be able to run your life. Unless of course you are in a certain state where you are happy to be able to follow other people… This country is crying out for a leader. God knows what it is looking for, but if it`s not careful it`s going to end up with a Hitler. This place is so ready to be picked up by anybody who has a strong enough personality to lead". Note that he is not saying that all people are sheep, but that most of them are. He expressed very similar sentiments in a 1975 interview: "people aren`t very bright, you know. They say they want freedom, but when they get the chance, they pass up Nietzsche and choose Hitler, because he would march into a room to speak and music and lights would come on at strategic moments. It was rather like a rock-`n`-roll concert. The kids would get very excited- girls got hot and sweaty and guys wished it was them up there. That, for me, is the rock-`n`-roll experience". So while in 1969 he regarded rock`n`roll as the language of those few who can think for themselves and do their own thing, by 1975 he sees rock`n`roll as another language of oppression.

When did this transformation occur in his thought? I believe Diamond Dogs manifests the turning point. By 1974, rock music became mainly a big stadium extravaganza, and rock stars stood on a huge stage and used a massive PA system, making the comparison to fascism quite obvious. Who are the speakers of this song, those who are asking for someone to follow? I believe they are the same kids who got turned on by `Rebel Rebel`, and are now looking to take the next step. Rock`n`roll, with its power and larger-than-life heroes, has made them susceptible to dictatorship.

Which brings us to the next question: who is their "Big Brother"? Who is this dictator they are calling for? Could it be our hero, the rock`n`roll star? The story of rockstar-turned-messiah-turned-dictator was told in several movies and rock albums of the late sixties and early seventies, and Bowie, by his admission, actually lived through this fantasy. In 1975 he said: "I fell for Ziggy too. It was quite easy to become obsessed night and day with the character. I became Ziggy Stardust. David Bowie went totally out the window. Everybody was convincing me that I was a Messiah, especially on that first American tour. I got hopelessly lost in the fantasy. I could have been Hitler in England. Wouldn`t have been hard. Concerts alone got so enormously frightening that even the papers were saying, `This ain`t rock music, this is bloody Hitler! Something must be done!` And they were right. It was awesome. Actually, I wonder ... I think I might have been a bloody good Hitler. I`d be an excellent dictator. Very eccentric and quite mad". There is no way to tell for sure, but it is possible that Bowie is weaving a similar story here, and his hero, who in the song `Candidate` offered himself as our candidate to get our kicks on, now becomes our candidate for dictatorship. The fuhrerling becomes a Fuhrer.  

For a moment, he stops, and slips into another state of mind…

I know you think you`re awful square
But you made everyone and you`ve been everywhere
Lord, I think you`d overdose if you knew what`s going down

This may be his new consciousness addressing his old consciousness, the one he had when he was singing `Rebel Rebel`. He is telling him that his way of living for kicks is done, because he`s already made everyone and been everywhere. When he tells him "I think you`d overdose", it could be understood in two ways: he either tells him that he found an even more powerful way of life, one that his old self would not be able to handle and only his new and improved self is able to contain; or, alternatively, that he realizes that he is betraying his old ideals, and that the person he once was would kiIl himself if he knew what he`s up to now.

This moment of reflection quickly fades, though, and we are overtaken once again with a bombastic, Wagnerian sound, as the chorus rings out loud. Rock is dead, long live dictatorship. Elvis has left the building, and Big Brother is now in control.

All we have from the 1974 performance is the audio, and some grainy fan footage.

When Bowie returned to the grandiose quasi-fascist stage in his 1987 Glass Spider tour, he naturally revived `Big Brother` in some of the shows. Again, we currently have only the audio.

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