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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Right

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So the Young Americans album is a fusion of rock and soul, brought back together again after drifting apart in the previous decade. Up to 1965, rock`n`roll and soul were intertwined, both born together in 1955, both sharing many traits. One of the most striking similarities between them was the reliance on the backbeat: the bass drum hitting on the even beats in the bar (the 2nd, the 4th, the 6th, the 8th), creating a propulsive push forward which makes you feel like your spirit erupts out of your body. The cultures that revolved around this music believed that they are moving forward towards a better existence, driven by this relentless beat. But in 1965, white rock`n`roll turned towards the folk-rock of Bob Dylan, which made the beat subservient to the cadences of the lyrics; while black soul was introduced to the odd beat of funk, presented by James Brown. From there, they started to go in different directions.

The moment funk was born as a musical style was James Brown`s `Papa`s Got a Brand New Bag` – the "new bag" being funk - in which all the essential ingredients already exist. Funk breaks the steady backbeat with some odd beats, focusing mainly on the first beat in the bar (or as it later became known in funk lore: "The One"). The result is that the swinging drive forward, which listeners got used to expect, is broken, and you feel like swinging to and fro in the same place. The singing and playing are still in the eruptive style of gospel and soul, but instead of ringing out loud in a howl of release, they come in short spurts, as if they are all percussive instruments: the guitars are plucked, the brass gives short outbursts, the vocals come in powerful yelps. The resulting sensation is that the eruption doesn`t burst out of your body like in rock`n`roll and soul, but rather creates a series of explosions inside it, causing a delirium that compels you to dance ecstatically. It is a euphoric sensation, which Brown documented in his next single, `I Feel Good`.

Funk was something that most white folks of the time could not comprehend. European culture traditionally believed that the human spirit should transcend the body, and dance music was therefore considered inferior to music which "belonged to the spirit" - i.e. music that focused on melody and harmony, expressing emotions and thoughts. A style like funk, which almost completely did away with melody and harmony and was all rhythms, was perceived in this consciousness as soulless, reducing man to an animal. In African culture, on the other hand, dance music is an essential part of the fabric of life, the way in which a person internalizes the culture and history of his people and finds his identity. Funk was therefore perceived as a way to reconnect to the black spirit, and in time grew into a complex polyrhythmic style, edging closer to African music. Intensifying soul music`s struggle to free the black man, funk was the sound of African-Americans learning to be proud of their black identity.

With the collapse of the sixties dream, soul was shattered, falling into bluesy sadness, losing its power to make a change, even its conviction in the possibility of change. Funk, on the other hand, was still pounding strong. African-Americans might have failed to achieve social equality, but they could still dance, and by dancing find joy, as well as diving deeper into their psyche. Funk offered escape from the world outside, an escape by which you could, as a black person, find yourself.

By 1972, a new force arose in black music: Philadelphia International, the record label that found a way to sell funk to white people as well. The formula was simple: take a funky rhythm section, add soulful singers, and wrap it all in lush orchestration. It was said that they have "made a lady out of funk", made it elegant and appealing. This sound became hugely successful, and it was this sound that drew Bowie to Philadelphia and served as the starting point for his Young Americans project.

In our interpretation of other tracks on the album, we have seen that Bowie is calling for a revival of youth culture, trying to bring rock and soul back to life by combining them. In face of all the desperation pervading mid-seventies pop, Bowie wanted to bring a positive message, and `Right` is the track that sums up the album`s dedication to positive thinking. The new mix of rock and soul is meant to produce ecstasy, a joyful vibe that will drive away the blues. But if he truly wanted to express a good feeling, Bowie knew that he had to heed James Brown`s dictum, and make it funky.

Actually, the entire album is funky, adopting the soft funk of Philadelphia. But in `Right`, the funk elements of the mix are brought to the fore, with an accentuated, polyrhythmic rhythm section and a bouncy mood. This is not a record that is supposed to make you think deeply or stir your emotions. This is a record that wants you to give yourself up to the beat.

Taking it all the right way
Keeping it in the back
Taking it all the right way
Never no turning back
Never need, no
Never no turning back

In `Young Americans`, Bowie laments that we have lost our connection with the past, and can`t even remember yesterday. Here, he turns it around: who cares about the past – what is important is this moment, and what we make of it. We shouldn`t be looking back, we should leave the past behind and take every moment the best way we can.

Another track is also evoked in these lines. In `Can You Hear Me?`, Bowie tells us to "take it in right" – to open ourselves up to another soul and know the joy of soul fusion. Here, the line is shuffled around into "takin` it right", employing this joy to form a positive outlook on life.  

Flying in just a sweet place
Coming inside and safe
Flying in just a sweet place
Never been known to fail
Never been, no
Never been known to fail

Again, nothing too complicated, just some sentences that try to express the feeling achieved by the new sound. From here to the end of the record (which is the lion-share of the record), we are giving ourselves to this feeling, as Bowie and the choir create a funky stew, chopping up the phrases and shaking them back and forth, occasionally soaring up and flying on soul wings, but then diving right back into the bubbly funk caldron. Take it right.

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