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פ.י.מ.פ.

(Analyzing Bowie: Young Americans (album

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In 1974, Bowie fulfilled a couple of his longtime ambitions. First, he erected the most grandiose stage rock`n`roll has ever seen, realizing his vision to bring together rock and theatre to create the ultimate experience. Second, he was doing it in America, the land of his dreams, and wowing the American crowds. And yet, at some point, it all started to feel hollow. Once again, he had to turn himself to face himself, realize that he walks and talks like a jerk, and ask how he can get away from the monster he had become.

For the past few years, he has been living a life of constant changing, according to his belief that transformation is the key to ultimate joy. Every such transformation meant a new look, a new attitude, and essentially a new character. Diamond Dogs, however, revealed a feeling of weariness from this character charade, a feeling which apparently grew as he went on tour. At that time he was exposed to the New York underground disco scene, which by 1974 was at its height and on the cusp of breaking big. Bowie found a new key to joy in disco, in the tribal dance based on funky black rhythms, and he revamped his old hit `John, I`m Only Dancing` and turned it into a disco number. Not only that, but he revealed in an interview that `John, I`m Only Dancing (Again)` was meant to be the opening track on his next album, which gives us a clue that it was probably meant to be an album of funky dance music. One of the titles considered for the album was "Dancin`".

Another discarded title was "The Gouster", which tells us that Bowie was still into the character game. The Gousters were a subculture of Chicago African-Americans kids in the early 1960s, who adopted a look inspired by the zoot-suit gangsters of the 1940s. They disappeared by the 1970s, but their memory lingered on and the word came to signify a hip black man. "Let`s hear it for the Gouster / Baggy pants and the watch chain / Dressed down like the spirit and his game / But mirror, mirror on the wall sees all" sings Bowie in an outtake from the Sigma sessions, basically describing the Gouster-inspired look he adopted at the time. His funky rendition of `Footstompin``, an early 1960s doo-wop number, hints that he was thinking about using funk to revive the early rock`n`roll moment when black and white youth came together to create a cultural bang, and represent it through a "white Gouster" look.

As he delved into contemporary black music, however, Bowie started to rotate towards the deeper end of it, towards soul and gospel. Soul music, which carried the aspirations of African-Americans in the 1960s, fell into bluesy depression in the early seventies, reflecting a crisis in the black soul. The stark realism of the great soul records of the years 1971-74 showed the dream of equality shattered, the black ghettos in ruins, and hope gone. It was music so powerful that it was almost too hard to bare, and for those who needed a distraction, Philadelphia provided the solution. The Philly sound was typified by funky rhythms, soulful singing and lush productions, offering soul music that was romantic, danceable and enjoyable. Social problems were still dealt with occasionally, but the vibe was more optimistic and soothing. It was the main soundtrack for the disco subculture, and it drew Bowie to the Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia, to record his own version of the Philly sound.

And with this influence, comes a fundamental change of approach. Soul music is not about assuming a character. As the secular manifestation of gospel music, it is about testifying the truth, baring your soul in its nakedness. The Gouster concept was thrown away, and Bowie is pretending to reveal the man behind the masks. On stage he scrapped the "Hunger City" theatrical concept in favor of what looked more like a gospel review, and the album cover does not show a character but a close up of his face assuming a candid and deep expression. It was all still very stylish, but no longer glam.

And when you listen to the album`s lyrics, you realize that this musical shift also brings a fundamental shift in his perception of the world. He still deals with all the themes he always dealt with, but everything is inverted, looked at from a different perspective and presenting a new approach to dealing with them. Let us now go into the album and see what the new perspective is.

Like every previous album, the album opens with a presentation of a current crisis. Actually, the crisis is presented here not in one, but in the two opening tracks, bringing together two strands in his earlier albums. From The Man Who Sold the World to Aladdin Sane the crisis was described in personal terms, portraying himself as alienated from his public persona, but it also reflected a collective crisis. In Diamond Dogs the focus is on the collective crisis of contemporary youth, described as alienated from its own culture, which also reflects Bowie`s personal crisis. Here, the opening track `Young Americans` presents the crisis of youth culture, describing mid-seventies youth as drifting in a world of shattered dreams with no future or past to hold on to, while `Win` is more personal, describing himself as drifting in a loveless existence and alienated to his own actions. Both tracks, however, also contain an optimistic message, a way out. The first track calls on black and white youth to come together and create a new fusion to revive the spirit of youth culture, while the second preaches a positive attitude to existence. The rest of the album expands these messages.

The new black-white fusion he offers is a fusion of rock and soul, in which the problems he described in his previous rock albums are given a soulful or funky rendition, suggesting new possibilities to address them. If the Diamond Dogs album stressed the danger of the imminent rise of a new fascist dictator, `Somebody Up There Likes Me` suggests that the need for a dictator to worship is in our soul, which means that if we direct this need elsewhere we can prevent the rise of a dictator. Taken even deeper, this sentiment is an attack on his glam sensibilities, his idea that stardom can bring happiness as it is a way to live out a heroic kind of existence. In the past, identifying with a movie star was celebrated as a way to freedom, but in this track, identification with Valentino is a form of submission. In his interviews at the time, Bowie did not just warn that a fascist age was coming to the West, but predicted that it will come out of rock, as the next logical step of glam. Finally, `Fame` exposes that stardom is enslaving even to the star himself.

So if stardom is now rejected as a way to happiness, what is the form of existence that can bring it? The answer is: an existence as part of a community. In his Ziggy years, Bowie believed he had to create a community for himself by creating a star image for others to identify with, thus molding them in his image. Now, he believes he should come down from his pedestal and try to be just a member of the community. Every track on the album (excepting the two later added Lennon collaborations) is accompanied by a gospel-inspired choir, with Bowie emerging from it as an individual voice that comes out to testify and assert its individuality but then falls back into the rank. In his shows he considerably melted down the cool persona of Halloween Jack, expressing emotions and interacting with the crowd. Lyrically, we see a switch in perspective: in his previous albums, the basic human condition was defined as alienation, which we should overcome. Here, the basic human condition is defined as life in a community, and alienation is merely the result of bad choices you made. To overcome alienation and be happy, he tells us in `Can You Hear Me`, `Win` and the outtake `Who Can I Be Now?`, you simply need to connect to your natural human emotions and open your heart to other people. In the title track, this mutual emotional openness is seen as part of the change that will bring about the new black and white cultural fusion.

Alienation is not just alienation from others, but also from the self. In his previous albums, Bowie always tried to escape himself by changing his identity, but these new identities would always become alienated eventually. Here, the message is to learn to love yourself through the power of funky dance music. Most of the tracks are danceable, and in them the song always ends halfway through and the rest of the record is just a drive into ecstasy in which we learn to enjoy our dancing body, learn to love the here and now. `John, I`m Only Dancing (Again)` takes a record that was all about ambiguous identity games and turns it into a manifesto of dance music, while `Fascination` is a celebration of the ecstatic power of the funk.

With this resolution to stop escaping from himself, comes a yearning for some stability. It is almost amazing to hear the king of ch-ch-ch-changes covering the Beatles` `Across the Universe`, that mystical record about immersing in the universe which states: "nothing`s gonna change my world". But it is not so amazing when you follow Bowie`s progress through recent years in his attitude to human relationship. While records like `The Jean Genie` and `Lady Grinning Soul` still celebrated (albeit ambiguously) the lifestyle of moving from one lover to the other, `Sweet Thing` already described it as hollow and meaningless, and the same sentiment is found in the opening track of this album. But `Young Americans` also hints at the resolve of its heroine to find a more lasting kind of love, and `Can You Hear Me?` shows Bowie himself coming to the same resolve, a sentiment that is brought to its highest expression in the outtake `It`s Gonna Be Me`.

Another transformation is the general attitude towards existence. In his previous albums, Bowie regarded human existence as essentially miserable, and looked for ways to transcend this misery. Here, in tracks like `Win` and `Right`, he claims that existence is essentially good, and declares that to be rid of the misery you simply have to change your outlook on life from negative to positive. Lines like "flying in just a sweet place", "it`s hip to be alive", "take it in right", "all you`ve got to do is win" and "taking it all the right way" litter the album, and with the exception of the angry `Fame`, the atmosphere is warm and happy. Even the dark `Somebody Up There Likes Me` is sung with such soulful gusto that you can completely miss its irony and think it is a song of religious contentment.

All of this is naturally accompanied by a complete musical shift. Living up to the ethos of the title track, the new band is racially mixed, and the music mixes a funky rhythm section with rock guitars, keyboards and saxophone. Bowie`s singing is no longer theatrical but soulful and at times even confessional, and his vocals become deeper and richer as a result. The writing style changes as well, becoming even more abstract and cryptic, capturing moods rather than describing situations. Finally, half of the song titles are made of just one word, signifying that the track presents a singular experience, not a story or a play. All of these new elements will remain staples of Bowie`s music from now on.

Another thing that is new is the realization that until now he was playing a game of characters. Bowie never referred to himself as Ziggy, Aladdin or Halloween Jack as he was playing out their characters, but now he starts to talk about them as identities that represented parts of his self, going as far as claiming in interviews that he actually "became Ziggy" for a while. His new stance is that he must now grow out of these characters and assert his own personality. In Alan Yentob`s documentary Cracked Actor he talks about the dangers of his former lifestyle, how he almost lost himself in the characters, and how he left it behind. "I`m glad I`m me now" he says, but as the words leave his mouth he bursts into laughter, as if realizing that he is talking nonsense.

Because Young Americans Bowie might not have had a character name, but he was still definitely playing a character. He may have truly wanted to open up and become part of the community, but he was doing it as a rock god coming down from the Olympus to be with the simple folks for a while, without ever giving up his divinity. He may have stopped wearing heavy makeup and outlandish costumes and started wearing suits, but that somehow made him look even more alien, accentuating his natural weirdness (made even weirder by heavy cocaine consumption that made him scarily thin). He may have shunned stardom, but the more accessible and danceable direction he adopted is the thing that finally made him break big in the America. It didn`t take him long to realize it, either. Just a year later, Bowie branded this album as "plastic soul", and shunned it for quite a long time, deeming it as basically fake.

That, however, was also nonsense, as everyone, including Bowie, came to realize over the years. Young Americans is a genuine statement and yet another Bowie masterpiece, not because it has an essentially different approach from previous albums, but because it is actually another great example of Bowie doing what he does best: taking cultures that were alien to each other and finding a way to fuse them together to create something novel and unique for others to emulate. For many American kids, Bowie`s new weird funky persona did what Ziggy did to the British kids three years earlier, and gave them an alien to identify with and take them to another place. And for those who were already Bowie Boys and Bowie Girls, it opened up a new world.

Most of all, it works musically. The drummer is Andy Newmark, who was the drummer of the seminal racially-mixed band Sly & the Family Stone, and here provides the bottom for another great band that carries on the Family Stone`s inclusive spirit. He is joined by Carlos Alomar, a great rhythm guitarist who cut his chops with the likes of James Brown and Wilson Pickett, and Willie Weeks, a legendary session bassist who has played with everyone. The ever-versatile Mike Garson, the only musician to carry over from the previous album, provides some sweet soul piano, while David Sanborn does wonders on the sax. Guitarist Earl Slick, who began his long collaboration with Bowie in the Diamond Dogs tour, doesn’t play on most of the album, but adds his bits on the Lennon tracks. The racially-mixed backing vocals give the perfect rock-soul feel, and feature a young African-American singer called Luther Vandross, who would go on to soul greatness. The Lennon collaborations may be a bit out of sync with the rest of the album (arguably would have worked better as an external single), but they do add something else to the mix. And Tony Visconti is back at the producer seat for the first time since The Man Who Sold the World, giving the album that rich and exotic sound that he does best. The final result is an album that makes you dance, sing, think, and yes, even break down and cry.

What about the album`s manifest of a new black and white fusion? Well, it may not have materialized straight away, but it worked its way in underground ways, which eventually led to greater social harmony. Young Americans was one of the albums that paved the way to the emergence of disco as the new sound of pop, the pop which gave us Michael Jackson, the first black superstar. For many American kids that discovered Bowie for the first time it was also an introduction to glam, with its liberalizing gender bending spirit. For the new subculture of Soul Boys in northern England it provided a model to emulate, leading to a lot of soul and funk permeating the British new wave of the early eighties. And Bowie`s trespassing into the funk domain was one the things that led the Parliament-Funkadelic clan to purify funk and create p-funk, a new stage in African-American consciousness. All of these were important steps in the dialog between white and black cultures, a dialog that had a crucial social impact. When the Young Americans grew older, blacks finally got respect, and whites got on the soul train.

Young Americans
Win
Fascination
Right
Somebody Up There Likes Me
Across the Universe
Can You Hear Me?
Fame

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