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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Win

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The album Young Americans, like all of Bowie`s seventies albums, captured the mood of its time a moment before everyone else caught up to it. Musically, it preempted the rise of disco, with funky grooves and soulful singing dressed up in lush productions. Content wise, Bowie defines his listeners as riding on "the bus of survivors", and in that he preempts what would be one of the main themes of the late-seventies disco era: survival. In a harsh political and economic environment, with all sixties hopes dashed and with the sixties generation mostly busy battling its various drug addictions, there was nothing left of the heroism of rock`n`roll`s past. In the late sixties, youth wanted to change the world. Now, you would be considered a hero if you merely managed to survive.

One of the biggest disco survival anthems would be the Bee Gees` `Staying Alive`, from the soundtrack of the 1977 hit movie Saturday Night Fever. The movie, which completely misrepresented the disco culture of the early seventies, showed a young Italian-American kid trying to survive in New York and finding local smalltime glory as a disco dancer. It was typical of seventies movies, where Italian-American youngsters were often cast as the surviving hero, on the one hand struggling to make it in the predominantly Anglo-Saxon society and on the other hand fighting to keep his place as king of the streets against the threat of blacks and Hispanics. Thus, they provided an identifiable hero both for minorities struggling to gain recognition in America and for Caucasians who feared the rise of these minorities. Disco culture, at first, transcended these social frictions, generated by mainly Italian-American DJs who mixed black and Latin grooves to create an all-loving community. But in the movie, the hero Tony has to show that he can dance better than the blacks and Hispanics in order to make it in the white world.

Bowie`s Young Americans was more in the spirit of disco, trying to bring black and white together. But shortly after he went to the city of brotherly love to record his message, someone else came to Philadelphia to tell a different story. Sylvester Stalone`s Rocky was an Italian-American heavyweight boxer fighting in a world that just two decades earlier had an Italian-American champion (also called Rocky) but was now completely dominated by African-Americans. Rocky seems like a washout on his way to Palookaville, but then he gets the chance of a lifetime to fight against the world champion. Rocky trains hard, but he doesn`t even dream of winning: all he wants is to survive, to show the world that he can take the beating and carry on. In the fight he gets butchered by the black champion, but manages to survive the entire 15 rounds. He loses the match, but he wins enough respect to be able to survive in life.

Coming out in 1976, Rocky was a good movie that even won the Oscar, leading to a 1979 sequel in which Rocky gets a rematch against the champ. But in the three years between Rocky I and II, American consciousness began to shift, to snap out of the malaise. At one point in the movie, Rocky`s wife is in a coma, and Rocky wants to forget about the fight and tend to her. But then she wakes up, and tells him there is one thing he can do to make her feel better: WIN. The seventies were coming to an end, and in the next decade, surviving would not be the name of the game anymore – in the eighties you had to win, and win big. This moment in Rocky II is one of the places where we witness the shift in consciousness, which happened around that time. But there was someone who said it first, half-a-decade earlier, in a breathtakingly beautiful record.

In the first half of the seventies, Bowie was the embodiment of the heroic, world-changing nature of youth culture, and saw himself as its reflection. Now that it was descending into desperation and thinking only how to survive, he was called upon to do what he always did: reflect the situation, and offer a way out. His answer is `Win`.

(Hey, it ain`t over)
Me, I hope that I`m crazy
I feel you driving and you`re only the wheel
Slow down, let someone love you
Ohh, I`ve never touched you since I started to feel

`Win` is yet another ch-ch-changes record in which a new Bowie is emerging and shedding the skin of the old Bowie. The change is always preceded by a feeling that the old identity he created for himself has taken over him, and instead of being a manifestation of his inner self it is some alien that runs his life. Here it is expressed in the image of the driver being steered by the wheel, and he hopes that this schizoid state is merely temporary madness that he can overcome. The old Bowie (now "the wheel") is someone who is moving and changing fast, always trying to escape the boredom of everyday life by creating an exciting imaginary world, staying away from any meaningful long-lasting relationship. The new Bowie that is awakening here no longer sees the logic in this kind of life. He is someone who realizes the joys of regular human emotions and of feelings shared with others. The old one is still driving, but the new one is now getting in touch with him for the first time and tells him to slow down and find joy in simple everyday life and in simple human relationships.

If there`s nothing to hide me
Then you`ve never seen me hanging naked and wired
Somebody lied, but I say it`s hip
To be alive

The old Bowie would also hide behind characters, but the new one, as we know from other tracks on the album, wants to open up to the world. The second line doesn`t make much sense, and I think Bowie absent mindedly messes it up. The lyric sheet in Bowie`s handwriting (presented at the 2013 V&A exhibition) says "If there`s nothing to hide me / You`ve never seen me hanging naked and wired", and Bowie probably adds the word "then" by mistake. Read correctly, he seems to be saying that he`s always hidden behind masks and didn`t let us see him in a vulnerable state, but now he is not going to hide any more. The "somebody lied" line probably hints at someone who claimed that human life is miserable and should be escaped from, and that someone could be any one of numerous thinkers and artists in the history of both Western and Eastern cultures. The old Bowie believed in that as well and wrote songs that flirted with death, but the new one is telling him that it is good to simply be alive, even if your life isn`t some heroic fantasy.

Now your smile is spreading thin
Seems you`re trying not to lose
Since I`m not supposed to grin
All you`ve got to do is win

Old Bowie used to be happy with his way of life, but now he is miserable, and the smile that he uses to cover this misery is beginning to spread so thin that the cracks are showing. Once he felt successful, now he is just trying not to lose - in other words, to survive. The new Bowie refuses to smile a phony smile, but asserts that to change the situation all you`ve got to do is snap out of this defeatist mood, and win. But how do you win?

Me, I`m fresh on your pages
Secret thinker sometimes listening aloud
Life lies dumb on its heroes
Wear your wound with honor, make someone proud
Someone like you should not be allowed
To start any fires

You win simply by embracing life, not the kind of unique and extravagant existence that the old Bowie wanted, but simple everyday life in all its mundane facets. While the heroism of extravagant existence is expressive and loud, the heroism of simple living usually remains dumb, as we take it for granted. But in the pits of despair, this life-loving side finds its voice and expresses itself for the first time on Bowie`s lyric pages. He asserts that he has always been there, always been a secret thinker beneath the glam exterior, and now it is time for him to speak. He tells the old Bowie to stop trying to act like a god, and show himself as a human who has wounds like everyone else, someone other humans can identify with. Furthermore, he claims that the old super-human Bowie is dangerous and should not be allowed to start any more fires. This new Bowie thinks in the terms of a human who is part of a community, and puts the welfare of the community above the motivations of the maverick individual.

As always, when Bowie is singing about himself, he regards himself also as a reflection of the culture around him. The old Bowie, who was once a joyful creature hungry for artistic victories but now only tries to survive, is a reflection of mid-seventies culture. This downfall led many people to become cynical about life, to question why they should even bother trying to do anything. Bowie`s message is: to change the situation, you first need to snap out of this state of mind. Old truths decay and die, but new and joyful ones can be found, and you start by the reaffirmation of daily human life and the regeneration of your hunger to win. "It ain`t over", he keeps telling us. Cultures and ways of life may die, but life goes on.

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