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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: What in the World

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On Station to Station, Bowie`s previous album, there were two tracks whose titles have a very similar structure: `Word on a Wing` and `Wild is the Wind`. Both tracks also share some common themes, like the feeling that existence is feeble and fleeting and that you need someone or something to hold on to in order to survive. `What in the World` returns to this title-mold, so we might expect to find a return to these themes. We do.

Like every other track on Low, this track speaks more through the music than the lyrics, and the music, it seems, conveys the chaos and confusion in Bowie`s life. The effect is achieved by laying a bubbling, babbling synth against zany percussion and guitars, while Bowie`s singing, with the help of Iggy Pop on backing vocals, is trying breathlessly to keep up. The lyrics, like in most tracks on the album, are aimed at a woman.

You`re just a little girl with grey eyes
Never mind, say something
Wait until the crowd cries
Oh, wait until the crowd cries
You`re just a little girl with grey eyes

In the previous album`s `Stay`, Bowie sang about inability to express deep emotions to a woman. Here it seems it is rather she who has a problem expressing herself to him, and he advises her to wait until there`s a lot of noise from the crowd so she won`t have to hear herself do it.

So deep in your room, you never leave your room
Something deep inside of me - yearning deep inside of me
Talking through the gloom
What in the world can you do
What in the world can you do
I`m in the mood for your love
For your love
For your love
For your love

The girl he tries to elicit is buried deep in her room, which in Bowie`s symbolism means that she closes her soul to the world. Bowie, as we know from other tracks on the album, is also ensconced in his own room, and so there are two walls separating them even as they stand face to face. They cannot communicate in any meaningful way, yet he is yearning for communication. There is a part of his soul, a part buried deep down, that wants to tear down these walls and embrace this woman in true love, but neither her nor he know what in the world they can do to achieve it.

I`m just a little bit afraid of you
Cause love won`t make you cry
But, wait until the crowd goes
Oh, Wait until the crowd goes
I`m just a little bit afraid of you

Her autism makes her seem emotionless and that scares him, but he still wants to get to know her. This time he tries a different approach, and advises her to wait until everyone leaves and they are alone. Maybe then he can draw her out?

Oh, what you gonna say?
Oh, what you gonna do?
Ah, what you gonna be?
To the real me, to the real me

As he imagines what it would be like to have that conversation, we find the source of his anxiety. He is counting on her to bring out the "real him", the one that is buried deep inside and yearning to come out, but it also makes him anxious about what he might turn out to be and what kind of relationship they will have. If he lets himself come out he will be exposed, and might get hurt by what she might say or do.

So it turns out to be another record about feeling alienated and wanting to let his "real self" come out. "What in the World" asks: what is my inner world like? This is a question that Bowie asks in one of the opening tracks of each of his seventies albums because he believes his "real self" is something that occasionally changes, so he must change his image accordingly in order to remain connected to the here and now. In every album he creates such an image, and he does it with the help of an alien that breaks into his world and awakens his "real self". At first, the "real selves" he created were heroic individuals asserting themselves in the face of the world, for instance in `Moonage Daydream` or `Rebel Rebel`. In `Young Americans` the identity was still heroic but not individualistic, because the alien was soul music with it collective spirit, so his new "real self" was a collective one that spoke for a "we" that rebel against a world that separates us into isolated individuals and asserted that we are real only when we are together. In `Station to Station` we saw him going back to individualism and turning his back on the collective, but not in a heroic way. Rather, it comes from a sense of failure, as he still believes that authenticity comes from "we" and yearns for a meaningful relationship. `What in the World` deepens the failure: he is not heroic but frightened, he doubts he wants to find his "real self", he is still disconnected from the "we", and he is not sure that the alien (which here is presented as the girl with grey eyes) can help him. As we saw in `Breaking Glass`, breaking into another`s "room" might end in a disaster. The entire ch-ch-ch-changes ethics are called into question, and Bowie seems to feel he cannot live up to them anymore. And so, confused and afraid, he recedes into himself, to look for a new way out.

`What in the World` underwent a complete transformation in performance over the years. Laid against a reggae beat, played faster and faster and with more pizzazz, the chaotic music becomes ecstatic and happy. Not as good as the original, perhaps, but definitely fun.

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