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פ.י.מ.פ.

(Analyzing Bowie: John, I`m Only Dancing (Again

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Dancing, perhaps the oldest human form of expression. For thousands of years, people danced to lose themselves, to find themselves or to express themselves. But Western civilization brought the dance to a halt. Christianity preached that finding joy through your body was sinful, and censored ecstatic dance. Instead, dance became either imitative or functional, serving other purposes such as courting. Dance music was demoted in "high" Western culture, and considered the lowest form of music.

It was African-Americans who turned the tide in the other direction, suffusing Western pop music with an African consciousness, which regards dance as essential to music. But still, dance was considered inferior, and every pop style veered away from dance music when it started to develop artistic pretensions. It took the advent of funk in the 1960s for black kids to finally shed European consciousness and realize that dance is the deepest essence of music. But white kids were still bound by the old consciousness, and rock steered away from dance.

There was, however, another group that adopted funk. Gay Americans began fighting for their rights in the late sixties, but were still living in fear and found sanctuary in Manhattan discotheques were they had all gay nights. These nights continued the sixties dream of a loving community, but put more emphasis on the pleasures of the body. The DJs, appropriately, concocted a mix of psychedelia and funk, in a never-ending dance session. A new musical style was born, a style known as "disco".

Disco was underground music throughout the first half of the seventies, a secret reserved to the New York gay and hip communities. When Bowie moved to America in 1974, he became immersed in it through his connections in these communities and it was one of the things that drove him to the funky soul adventure of Young Americans. It was a shift in his perception, and he found the best way to manifest this shift: reworking his old hit `John, I`m Only Dancing`, and shifting the emphasis inside it. `John, I`m Only Dancing (Again)` was at one point slotted to be the opening track of the Young Americans album. It ended up as an outtake, but it is still an integral part of the project.

How does this reworking manifest the shift? In the original `John, I`m Only Dancing`, the dance is an activity performed as part of a mating ritual. The protagonist is caught between a woman he is dancing with and a jealous man, and the situation is tense. The song has bisexual overtones, and the ecstasy comes from the titillation of forbidden sexuality, resolving the underlying tension. In `John, I`m only Dancing (Again)` there is no tension – the ecstasy is coming from the dance itself.

The record opens with a line nicked from soul singer Alvin Cash`s 1968 record `Keep on Dancing`, but while there it was played by a horn section, here it is done with electric guitar. So it starts as another example of soul turned into a more rock sound, but then the funky rhythm sets in as John is obeying Cash`s demand.

(Dancing) I`m having so much love
(Dancing) Too bad my back had gone
(Dancing) Boogie down with daddy now
I`d give my house in the country
If you`d slap me some funky

Regular funk verse. Dancing is the essence of life, I`d give everything to keep on dancing, I danced so hard my back has gone but I keep it on, I`m in love with everyone dancing around me, etc.

(Music) I`m dancing in the street
(Ooh music) I`ve torn the shoes from my feet
(Romancing) It`s got me dirty and sweet
It`s got you reeling and rocking
Won`t you let me slam my thing in

The second verse connects us with early rock`n`roll, when it was primarily dance music and produced such dance classics as `Dancing in the Streets` and `Reeling and Rocking`, and ends with a sexually suggestive risqué line, just like the good old days. Rock forgot its origins, but now we are taking it back there, with the help of funk.

(Falling) I think it`s all I can do
(Falling) Just got me feeling you too
(Ooh falling) Get a little, take a little
Give a little back

This connects to `Can You Hear Me?`, to the communal feeling of opening up to others and feeling at one with them. Here it is achieved through dancing together.

Jumping John the grey goose is gone
Got a lion on my hand
Got a Charlie on my back

John is introduced in a line stolen from `The Fox`, an old folk song; the last line is probably a Vietnam War reference; and the "lion on my hand" thing, I have no idea where that comes from. It makes no sense, and it probably isn`t supposed to. The ecstasy of dance just jumbles everything together.

(John) I`m only dancing
(She turns me on) I`m only dancing
(She turns me on) oh get you with me
(Don`t get me wrong) ah ha ha ha ha
(I`m only dancing, oh ho hooo)

In the chorus, the choir sings the original `John, I`m Only Dancing` lyrics, while Bowie is riffing on them. While the original song was about dancing with someone while being watched by a jealous third party, here these human conflicts are cast aside. While the choir claims he`s dancing with a girl because she turns him on, the protagonist insists that he is in it just for the dancing itself, and even invites John to join in. In the original record, dancing was a function within human relations. Here it transcends this functionality, and becomes a thing done for its own sake.

(Dancing) Have you heard the news
(Dancing) President has got the blues
(Dancing) I tell you confidently
If he gives it to you
He`d better take it from me

Our dancing hero has heard something about President Nixon`s troubles (he resigned the same month this song was recorded), but he doesn`t care much – it just gets jumbled up in there with everything else.

(Sexy) I pick up the bones
(Sexy) Leave the numbers alone
(Sexy) Get off your telephone
Look ya people in the eye
Tell `em my oh my
Let your backbone slide
Buddy whistle and cry

More of the same, and that takes us to the extended jam in which we are on the discotheque floor, awash with flickering lights and losing ourselves in the joyful experience. "John, I`m only dancing" is no longer an assurance to a jealous lover, but an affirmation for a way of life.

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