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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Young Americans

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`Young Americans`, the title track that opens Bowie`s ninth studio album, repeats the formula that his previous albums have set for opening tracks: it describes a crisis and contains the beginning of the answer on how to overcome this crisis, an answer which he develops throughout the album. The crisis is always both personal and collective, since Bowie has turned his image into a reflection of the youth culture of the day. Let us remind ourselves of the different crises and solutions he went through.

In his first albums, Bowie dealt with the collapse of the hippie dream. The youth culture that grew from rock`n`roll, and aspired to present an alternative to the old world of the adults, reached a point in the mid-sixties where it believed it found the ultimate truth, a way of life that would bring the perfect world. It was based on the joyful psychedelic experience and the feeling of unifying love, which the hippies believed would eventually encompass the entire world. Towards the end of the sixties, youth culture became revolutionary, believing that it is going to create a better future. Bowie made his first albums during that period and showed the futility of the hippie dream, the groundlessness of their beliefs, and ultimately their downfall. Finally, he offered an alternative: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars took another look at youth culture, and offered another way to happiness. Its opening track described the crisis of realizing that there is no better future awaiting us, a realization which seems to suggest that there is no hope for happiness, but the following tracks show that instead, happiness can be achieved in the here and now. Happiness, shows the album, comes when you synthesize parts of your own culture with ingredients provided by someone alien to it, thus freeing yourself from the constraints of your world and creating a new ecstatic musical experience, an experience that is called "rock`n`roll". This ecstasy generates the ultimate joy, and it also generates a feeling of love and unity with thy neighbors. This happiness, however, is only temporary, and subsides once the experience is no longer new and no longer generates ecstasy. But then, it is possible to find another alien and create a new synthesis, thus always remaining in a joyful here and now.

Bowie remained faithful to this insight, and so, when the ecstasy of Ziggy subsided, he simply left him behind and launched a whole new project, Diamond Dogs. But the opening track of that album revealed a crisis in his way of life: in a symbolic way, it spoke of a world confined in its boundaries, with no life outside. Hence, it has no aliens that can come from without and offer something else, no way to form that synthesis that generates ecstasy, no way to achieve the joyful rock`n`roll experience. This futuristic allegory hints that rock`n`roll has exhausted its options, that it no longer has ways to regenerate itself. The following tracks offer a solution: rearrange the ingredients of your world in a new rebellious way and thus create the alien effect that produces joy. Happiness is restored for a while, but then, the album comes to a startling realization: there are powers in this world that seek to exploit our rebellion and take over our society. And our society is susceptible to these powers, because most people still think in terms of working towards creating a perfect world in the future and are easily seduced by the utopian dreams offered to them by these powers. By the end of the album, this leads to a totalitarian dictatorship, and shows Bowie`s turnaround: while in 1972 he believed that rock`n`roll is a liberating force of good, by 1974 he came to believe that it has lost its spirit and has essentially become a zombie that can be manipulated by authoritarian forces. In subsequent interviews, Bowie would predict the rise of fascism in the West, and would claim that rock music would play a part in aiding and abetting this rise.

So Bowie found himself in yet another dead end street, and as an artist, all he could do was be a reflection of this dystopian future he envisioned. In mid 1974 he came to America, to put on a grandiose show that brought this world to life on stage and succeeded in dazzling the American audiences. But there, in the US, he encountered a new alien, something that could lift him out of the dead world of rock, and set him on a new joyful path. That alien was soul music.

Soul music was born in the mid-fifties, along with rock`n`roll. Just as young white artists were combining black rhythm `n blues with forms of white pop to create the rock`n`roll explosion, young black artists were synthesizing the secular rhythm `n blues with the gospel music that came from the black churches to create soul. In soul music, the fervor of gospel remained, but instead of the ecstasy of religious devotion, the lyrics described sexual pleasures. Deemed sacrilegious in the eyes of most black folks, it took time to take hold, but by the beginning of the sixties became the main sound of African-American pop. In Detroit, the Motown company toned down the ecstasy and wrapped it up in beautiful productions to create a marvelous and dignified form of pop music that by the middle of the decade came to dominate the charts. Calling itself "the sound of young America", Motown was loved by black and white youth alike, and was a symbol for black integration in American society.

Meanwhile, however, soul took deeper meanings. Since the mid-fifties, the Civil Rights Movement was demanding the end of discrimination against African-Americans and the change of American consciousness to respect black people and see them as equal human beings. The movement was led by preachers and fueled at first by gospel music, the music that has always used the holy scriptures as an allegory for African-American yearn for freedom and equality. The gospel promise of salvation was always something that existed in the distant future, but in the fifties it became imminent, and spilled from the Churches to the streets. By the mid-sixties, secular soul music connected to its gospel roots and rotated towards that message, and became the center of black culture and consciousness, the highest expression of the demand to be seen as people with soul. Soul music was now the beating heart of black music, drawing blood from gospel, jazz, blues, doo-wop and R&B and pumping itself back into them, seen as the deepest expression of all of them. It also drew from psychedelic rock and its revolutionary spirit. But while the revolution of psychedelic rock spoke in universal terms, psychedelic soul largely left behind the universal language of gospel and became more Afro-centric. With the advent of funk, which emphasized rhythm and musical traits which were considered more "black", soul music started to drift away from rock`n`roll after a decade of mutual development. It was no longer about gaining respect as equals and showing that we are all the same beneath our skin-color, it was about finding pride in your black identity and embracing it.

And so, in the late sixties, African-American politics drifted away from the non-violent, equality-based rhetoric of Martin Luther King into something more militant, and in some cases became radically anti-white. The establishment`s reaction was, shall we say, unfavorable, and the ultimate outcome was that all sixties hopes were dashed. Equality was not achieved, life was not made better, and black consciousness fell back into despair. In the early seventies, the leading form of black music was still the funky psychedelic soul of the late sixties, but the mood was the blues, and the soul was ailing. In the years 71-74, artists like Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Sly & the Family Stone, the Temptations and others produced records that were shattering in their stark realism, expressing the sense of failure and desperation in the black mind. Just as Bowie and others were singing about the collapse of the sixties dream from a white point of view, they were doing the same thing from theirs.

But that, for Bowie, is what made a way out possible. On the one hand, soul music drifted so far away from rock that they became aliens to one another, and could serve as the thing that would take each other to another world. On the other hand, there was now common ground for white and black youth, a common ground that could link them together again. The time has come for a new synthesis, a synthesis that will save both cultures, and bring back the promise of Motown, be the current "sound of young America". Hence, `Young Americans`.

They pulled in just behind the fridge
He lays her down, he frowns
"Gee my life`s a funny thing, am I still too young?"
He kissed her then and there
She took his ring, took his babies
It took him minutes, took her nowhere
Heaven knows, she`d have taken anything, but
All night
She wants the young American
Young American, young American, she wants the young American
All right
She wants the young American

The first verse and chorus go back to a familiar Bowie theme: meaninglessness in existence. But there is a difference: in the past, he usually focused on one protagonist who felt his life was meaningless; here, there are two protagonists, a boy and a girl (although this verse focuses mainly on the girl), as Young Americans is going to be a "we" album. We`ve encountered songs with a boy and a girl before, like `Soul Love`, but they weren`t the protagonists, they were characters the protagonist was watching and envying. In `Soul Love`, the love between the boy and girl was seen as a way to escape the meaninglessness of existence, and the lament was due to the fact that he knew that love was a temporary thing and does not provide a permanent solution. Here, we once again have a temporary relationship, but here we don`t even have love: the boy and the girl are going through the motions of relationship and love-making, but it is meaningless throughout, and all they get from it is a brief sexual pleasure and a lifetime to pay for it, as she gets knocked up.

And so, even the solution proposed by Ziggy Stardust, a solution based on a lifestyle where we find meaning by moving from one love to the other and thus remaining in love, is here seen as empty. We`ve seen that already in `Sweet Thing`, and here we see it again. These youngsters experience brief sexual encounters, seemingly following Ziggy`s advice of "moving from one love to the other", but since they don`t know how to find love, they fail to find the happiness he was singing about. When the girl "wants the young American", she wants his body for sex, and nothing more.

Scanning life through the picture window
She finds the slinky vagabond
He coughs as he passes her Ford Mustang, but
Heaven forbid, she`ll take anything
But the freak, and his type, all for nothing
Misses a step and cuts his hand
Showing nothing, he swoops like a song
She cries "Where have all Papa`s heroes gone?"

The girl is "scanning life" - turning to self-reflection, to try to find out what is wrong with her life. In the first verse, she "would have taken anything" – any man who wants to have sex with her is welcomed, just so she can feel something for a while. But now, suddenly, she changes, and ignores the hints of a passing vagabond. Heaven forbid she`ll take anything. From now on, she decides, she will take only something that has meaning. The vagabond freak is probably an aging hippie, a remnant of that generation that tried to change the world and turn life into something joyful and meaningful, but by now we know that it was "all for nothing". The hippies failed, and the girl doesn`t want to go down that road again. The vagabond injures himself but displays no pain or emotions (probably a junky) – a sad ending for what was once a lively expression of humanity. It makes the girl realize that all the heroes of yesteryear are gone, that she has no role models to follow, and she has to find her own way.

All the way from Washington
Her bread-winner begs off the bathroom floor
"We live for just these twenty years
Do we have to die for the fifty more ahead?"

All night
He wants the young American
Young American, young American, he wants the young American
All right
He wants the young American

The girl, then, no longer wants to play this game of meaningless brief encounters, and looks for something more substantial. The boy, however, is not ready for that. He is still in the mind that stability and maturity means death, and thinks that committing to something more substantial means that he will have to commit to it for life. He tries to convince her to keep up the current arrangement, where they commit to just one night of sex at a time. The mention of Washington, the nation`s capital, hints that the couple`s problem stands for the problems of all young Americans.

Do you remember, your President Nixon?
Do you remember, the bills you have to pay
Or even yesterday?

Bowie now speaks to all young Americans, describing them as floating in a rootless state. In his previous albums he described contemporary existence as having no future, but now he shows that it doesn`t even have a past. The kids have troubles remembering yesterday, or President Nixon (who resigned just a few days before this song was recorded). This is the price of the life he advocated, the life of constant changes: you lose your past, lose your roots.

Have you been an un-American?
Just you and your idol singing falsetto `bout
Leather, leather everywhere, and
Not a myth left from the ghetto

Bowie is conjuring some youth folk heroes from the past, both black and white, but it`s all in the past now – these heroes are not heroes anymore, and they can hardly remember what it was all about.

Well, well, well, would you carry a razor
In case, just in case of depression?

We`re hearing echoes of `Rock`n`roll Suicide`. The joys of the past are gone, and you have nothing left to live for. Will you go on living, or are you thinking of suicide?

Sit on your hands on a bus of survivors
Blushing at all the afro-sheeners
Ain`t that close to love?
Well, ain`t that poster love?
Well, it ain`t that Barbie doll
Her heart`s been broken just like you have

And just like `Rock`n`roll Suicide`, we find the answer in the pits of despair, when we realize that "you`re not alone" and that "I had my share, I`ll help you with the pain". The white kid is on the same "bus of survivors" with black kids, and they realize that they have something in common: they are all survivors of the sixties` broken dreams, all share the same desperation. We all feel that same pain, and even that girl who looks like a Barbie doll, a symbol of perfection, is actually broken inside. And this common ground enables us to find a new sense of camaraderie and love, which can be the basis for a new joyful existence, a new answer. And with this realization, the mood of the record suddenly changes: when the backup singers break into the chorus, they sound a lot more intense and gleeful than before…

All night
All night she wants the young American
Young American, young American, you want the young American
All right
You want the young American

Bowie is singing "she wants", referring to that Barbie doll, but then, the backup singers (let`s call them for what they are: a gospel choir) interject, turning it to "you", and Bowie chimes in: you, the listener, are part of this story, and you want to come with us on this new ride. From here on to the end of the record, Bowie is carried on the wings of this newfound feeling of unity, playing a gospel call-and-response with his choir to soar to ecstatic heights and take us along:

You ain`t a pimp and you ain`t a hustler
A pimp`s got a Cadi and a lady got a Chrysler
Black`s got respect, and white`s got his soul train
Mama`s got cramps, and look at your hands sing
(I heard the news today, oh boy)

These lines are meant to re-instill a sense of self-respect in the minds of the listeners: yes, we are down, but we are not out. We are not pimps and hustlers, and we do not judge ourselves by material goods like they do - we have other riches, other things to be proud of. The sixties revolution may have failed, but we still got some things done. Blacks do have more respect and are regarded as equal humans, and in turn they enrich us with their soul music which can take us elsewhere. On this basis, youth can once again form a culture that will make mama ill, and open a new generation gap.

In 1972, Bowie sang: "all the young dudes carry the news", talking about how the young kids are the ones that convey the spirit of the time. He goes back to the "news" theme here, but he connects it to the Beatles` `A Day in the Life`, a record that expresses the ultimate enlightenment that can be achieved in some moments of your daily life. So we are still in the frame of a life that is lived as separate moments, hopping from one experience to the other, but the current experience is no longer meaningless: it is the "news", the deepest expression of the spirit of the moment. We have left the poor boy and girl behind, wallowing in their meaningless lives, and we are riding on the soul train to a new magic land.

I got it sweet and you got defeat
Ain`t there a man who can say no more?
And, ain`t there a woman I can sock on the jaw?
And, ain`t there a child I can hold without judging?

Finding this new answer, Bowie begins to call on others to join in this merger of rock and soul, forget about their defeat and accept the new sweet thing.

Ain`t there a pen that will write before they die?

Connecting to the spirit of soul music, Bowie expresses two of the main gospel tenets: baring witness, and testifying. Seeing the despair around him, he calls on inspiration to put a pen in his hands, a pen that will document it before all these people fade away and no one will understand what they went through. But gospel has a third tenet: changing the situation. The gospel singer is baring witness and testifying because he wants to affect the listeners to change their ways. Similarly, Bowie wants to affect his listeners to change their ways and jump on the new soul-rock train. Another interpretation of this line is that he believes that if he doesn`t find the words that bring change, all these people will soon die of despair.

This is the first time we encounter this theme in Bowie`s art. He always regarded his job as an artist to be a mirror-image of contemporary society, but here we have something else. His previous albums talked about how everything is subject to change, and that because of that we cannot understand things that happened in the past since we are living in a different state of mind (recall the future kids in `Drive-In Saturday` who tried to recapture the joys of the past by imitating old movies). And if that is so, it is important for an artist to document what is going on around him, so that it will not be lost. We will encounter this theme again in later albums, and when we do, we must remember that this conviction was born out of the gospel sensibility and that he does it not merely to document the situation for posterity but also because he wants to affect change.

Ain`t you proud that you`ve still got faces?
Ain`t there one damn song that can make me
break down and cry?

Youth culture is a musical culture, so a revival of its spirit will be a revival of its music. How do we know that we found the right answer, the right musical synthesis? If the songs we hear from now on will touch us deep inside, so deep that they will make us break down and cry like rock and soul records used to do.

All night
I want the young American
Young American, young American, I want the young American
All right
I want the young American

Like the heroes at the beginning of the record, Bowie wants the young American. But it is a different kind of want. It is not just sexual desire for one person`s body: he wants all young Americans, and he wants them to join him in a new spiritual venture. He knows that it is still going to be temporary, just for one night (figuratively speaking), as even something that is real doesn`t last, but this night will be meaningful. From here to the end of the record, Bowie ad-libs, immersing himself in the ecstasy of the newfound experience, rapping about everyone coming together and sharing the same feeling.

Out of the quagmire of the mid-seventies, Bowie emerges with a new answer. The beginning of this opening track is still deep in depression, but by the end, he has already found the new sensibility that will revive us. The rest of the album will have to develop it.

And here`s Bowie performing it with his black/white soul/rock British/American band:

In 1983 Bowie came up with a new white/black fusion, for his rock/disco album Let`s Dance. `Young Americans` fit naturally into the new stuff.

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