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פ.י.מ.פ.

?Analyzing Bowie: Can You Hear Me

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In the Young Americans period, Bowie steps out of the rock world and tries to adopt a soul stance. On the one hand it is easy: rock and soul developed simultaneously, and shared a lot of elements. On the other hand, there were elements in which they were opposites, and the switch from one to the other was therefore an act of transformation. One of those elements was the perception of the relationship between the individual and the community. Rock regarded every person as a unique individual, a world unto itself, and rock singers were therefore expected to pose a unique, self-centered figure, singing against the world. Soul, on the other hand, regarded the individual as always being part of a bigger whole. A soul performance is a call-and-response affair between the soloist and the choir (which ideally includes the audience), in which the soloist breaks away from the pack to say his word but always returns back into the fold, always remaining part of the bigger communal world. While rock outfits aspired to be autonomous units, soul artists were usually part of labels that acted as a loving community. Motown and Stax, the two labels that ruled soul music in the sixties, set the formula in which the label`s writers would write for all the singers and groups, the label`s musicians played with all of them, and the label`s producers produced. It gave the label a cohesive sound, but the artists could still stand out in their distinctive style. In the seventies, the same formula was adopted by Philadelphia International, a label which in 1972 took over the popular side of soul and produced countless hits. When Bowie wanted to break out of the isolation of rock and adopt a communal, soulful stance, he came to record in Philadelphia.

Not that rock didn`t believe in the power of communal feeling. In the sixties, after all, the dream of rock was to turn humankind into one harmonious and loving community. But that`s precisely the difference: while soul regards us all as belonging to a community to begin with, rock regards us all as alienated, and needing to take action to come together. Bowie, when he started out in the late sixties, displayed this better than any other rocker, and many of his early records expressed a desire to escape alienation and be swallowed by a bigger whole. In `Space Oddity`, Major Tom escapes his old world, loses himself in a floating bliss and feels happy for a while, but then drifts away on that bliss and becomes even more alienated than before. This story became the blueprint for most of his subsequent creations, which showed an alienated figure who manages to step out of his world, finds happiness within a community of similar individuals, but always ends up even more alienated than before. The rock paradigm, then, failed to provide sustained happiness. Can he find a better answer in soul?

The Young Americans album inverts the worldview of Bowie`s previous albums. Instead of stepping out of himself to find love and community, he tries to see them as something that are already an innate part of him, and looks inwardly to unearth them. `Can You Hear Me?` is the key track here, its name lifted straight out of `Space Oddity`, straight from the moment when Major Tom loses all connection with the human race. If `Space Oddity` was the blueprint for all his subsequent records, and thus to a failed paradigm, then the answer should be to invert the outlook of `Space Oddity` and maybe find the connection again.

Once we were lovers, can they understand?
Closer than others I was your, I was your man
Don`t talk of heartaches, I remember them all
When I`m checking you out one day, to see if I`m
Faking it all

As we can see, here we do not start from a situation where everyone is isolated and alienated, but the initial state is of love and unity: "once we were lovers". This is not the first Bowie record to reminisce about a past love – recall `Letter to Hermione` and `An Occasional Dream` – but in these previous tracks, this love is already lost, and it only strengthens the feeling that our basic state is isolation and love is merely a fleeting thing. Here, the singer is still in a relationship with his object of love, but the initial flame had gone. So he is asking himself: is the love completely dead, and their relationship is just a sham? Or is there still a spark that can be rekindled?

Can you hear me?
Can you feel me inside?
Show your love, love
Take it in right (take it in right)
Take it in right (take it in right)

No, it isn`t a sham. There is a deeper kind of love, beyond the initial infatuation. In `Space Oddity`, the line "can you hear me?" comes as Major Tom loses contact, and just after he bids a sad goodbye to his wife which he will never see again. Here, it comes as the singer is trying to reconnect with his spouse on a deeper level. If we open up to each other, says Bowie, and let the other enter deeply into our soul, then we can find a more solid kind of love.

We are seeing Bowie maturing here. His previous perception of love as a brief and powerful infatuation was a very rock`n`roll thing, while here he speaks like a soul man. But he doesn`t go all the way to an adult point of view, regarding love as a long-term partnership. He is still thinking of love in idealistic terms, in terms of a soul fusion.

There`s been many others, so many times
Sixty new cities, an` what do I
What do I find?
I want love so badly, I want you most of all
You know, it`s harder to take it from anyone
It`s harder to fall

In the early seventies, Bowie was famously engaged in an open marriage with Angie, a life-partnership without fidelity. It fit in perfectly with his conviction that love doesn`t last and he should not remain faithful to anyone. Now, all of a sudden, a new theme enters his work, a theme which we will encounter again in his future albums: wanting a "real" marriage, a wife that is an emotional and spiritual anchor. In the chorus he said that you have to "take it in right", open yourself up and take someone in, in order to have real love. But he realizes that it is "harder to take it from anyone" – this is not the kind of love that you can find everywhere, but only from a certain type of soul. Now, his lifestyle of going around from woman to woman, from city to city, seems empty.

On a more philosophical level, Bowie is beginning to turn away from his "ch-ch-changes" lifestyle, from his belief that he should always move on, never remain part of any community. He hopped around between sixty new cities, and what did he find? That he needs more stability, needs to be part of a community. Moreover, he is also turning away from his Nietzschean Superman ideal, the belief that he has to be a heroic, larger-than-life figure. We see it in `Fame`, and he hints at it here as well, in a sentence that is only implied: "the bigger you are…"

So Bowie is now yearning to be not a messiah to other people, not a homo superior, not a star who betrays his fans and leaves them behind as he goes after the new experience, but part of a community. And as he falls back into the chorus, the choir is there to catch him, embrace him, complete his sentences for him, and make him part of a bigger whole. Carried away by this newfound experience of unity, Bowie gets into the ecstasy of call-and-response, and by the end of the record he is completely immersed.

Bowie got a chance to perform the song when he guest-starred on The Cher Show in November 1975, and turned it into a lovely duet with the host.

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