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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Somebody Up There Likes Me

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In many tracks on the Young Americans album, Bowie deals with themes he has dealt with in the past, but inverts them, looking at them from a soul perspective. While in the past he was theatrical, depicting the state of the world through a little sci-fi play, here he puts himself right in the middle of the situation, letting it play in his own soul. "There are several things on this album that lead from other things I`ve done," he said in an interview at the time. "What I`ve said for years under various guises is that `Watch Out, the West is going to have a Hitler!` I`ve said it in a thousand different ways. That song is yet another way." The song he is talking about is `Somebody Up There Likes Me`, so, without further ado, let`s explore it.

He`s everybody`s token, on everybody`s wall
Blessing all the papers, thanking one and all
Hugging all the babies, kissing all the ladies
Knowing all that you think about from writing on the wall

The record focuses on a charismatic figure, someone that everyone adores. There are hints that suggests that he is a pop star (the record is based on `I`m So Divine`, a song Bowie wrote as part of the Astronettes project, which is essentially a pop star`s boast, a typical piece of glam narcissism), but we sense that he is a political ruler, the head of the country (given Bowie`s contemporaneous remarks about the similarity between rock stars and fascist dictators, this ambiguity is probably intentional). He could be just a symbol of the world leaders of the time, but the last line makes things more insidious, and we find ourselves straight back in Hunger City, in the world of the Diamond Dogs. This leader is a kind of a Big Brother which controls every part of your life, even your forms of dissent. "The writing on the wall" has always been the thing that dictators dread, the sign that their rule is about to crumble. For this leader, however, it is a way to know what the people think and thus control them better.

He`s so divine, his soul shines
Breaks the night, sleep tight
His ever loving face smiles on the whole human race
He says "I`m somebody"
He`s got his eye on your soul, his hand on your heart
He says: don`t hurry, baby
Somebody up there likes me

The record takes a massively ironic twist, as it is thrown into a soul music setting. The basic experience of soul comes from gospel: giving yourself up in complete devotion to God, and feeling the joy of becoming part of something bigger. Here, the devotion is given to Big Brother, in terms that are taken straight out of gospel: the shining of the soul, the divine figure that smiles down on the human race, the all watchful eye on your heart. When it is backed up by a soulful choir, we too can`t help but give ourselves up to the experience, succumb to the powers of Big Brother.

He`s the savage son of the TV tube
Planets wrote the day was due
All the wisest men around
Predicted that a man was found
Who looked a lot like you and me, yeah
Everyone with sense could see
Nothing left his eye unmoved, he
Had the plan, he had to use

This ruler is a hybrid son of two cultures: pop culture, which idolizes charismatic TV figures, and religious culture, which teaches people to bow down to a higher power. He uses the religious sentiments of the masses to his advantage and creates a myth that he is chosen by God to be our master, a myth that ensures our obedience. When Bowie and the choir sing "somebody up there likes me", it could be both the leader telling us that he is loved by God, or ourselves feeling happy that this great leader loves us.

Somebody plays my song in tune                             
Makes me, makes me, makes me stronger for you, babe
Was a way when we were young, that
Any man was judged by what he`d done
But now you pick them on the screen (what they look like)
Where they`ve been

The main theme of the record emerges, and it is a theme that troubled Bowie at the time: the inability of most people to find an individual self, which drives them to seek substitutes. The singer here needs someone else to identify with, someone he can imitate to find an identity he calls his own. As we already heard in `Candidate`, the rock-star/politician figure provides this kind of person with an identity he can lose himself to. Again, this is described as the result of pop culture: when we watch these images on the screen, we identify with their glamorous image, and forget about what`s inside.

Leaders come
They knew all the people
That given time, the leaders go
Tell me, can they hold you under their spell
Can they walk and hold you as well as a
Smile like Valentino?
Could he sell you anything?
Keep your eyes on your soul, keep your hand on your heart
Don`t hurry, baby
Somebody up there (somebody) likes me

The people, says Bowie, don`t really want democracy, don`t want to periodically change their leaders. Deep down, they want someone to idolize, someone with the charisma of a movie star and the ruthlessness of a fascist dictator who will run their life forever. As the backup singers keep exultantly shouting "somebody", we hear the sound of self-affirmation, of people finding their identity, but it is an identity that is derived from wholly identifying with the powerful figure of someone else. As Bowie rambles his way to the end of the record, what we are actually hearing is the dissolving of the "somebody", its turning into nobody.

So it is much the same as `Big Brother`, where the people wanted "someone to claim us, someone to follow". But in `Big Brother`, Bowie blamed revolutionary thinking, which instilled Modern Man with the perception that he needs to build a perfect world and give himself completely to the cause and to its leader. Here, he finds the blame deeper down, deep in the soul of Man, in the human need to worship someone or something. The message, then, is more pessimistic: our need for a master is not a cultural conditioning that we can overcome, but part of human nature. And Bowie`s own mastery is displayed here as he makes us succumb to his cruel irony, give ourselves up to the power of this beautiful record, feel it in our own souls as well, until we can`t deny it. Like most tracks on Young Americans, this one ends with an ecstatic call-and-response which takes us higher and higher. But while in other tracks it is the positive sound of finding oneself in a free and loving community, here the same kind of yearning is turned towards something negative, as we lose ourselves to an oppressive system. As the sound of the choir engulfs and overwhelms us, we can`t help but let ourselves be pulled in, and we love Big Brother.

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