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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Art Decade

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'Art Decade', according to Bowie, is about West Berlin, what he found when he moved there in 1976. Once a great cultural center, it was destroyed by Nazi barbarity, WWII horrors and Soviet threats, and was a mere shadow of its former self. The title is a pun on "art decayed", reflecting this spiritual death. Among the four celebrated ambient pieces that make up the "instrumental side" of Low, this is the only one that is actually purely instrumental, featuring no human vocals at all. Since the vocals on the other tracks bring a touch of humanity into the mix, this track sounds the coldest, the one with the least soul. The main melody is plain, slow and repetitive, moving on like a sluggish stream, as if representing daily life in the wall-encircled city. At times it seems like it is about to halt, but then it drags on. The city is not completely dead, but decaying.

The title might also be a pun on art deco, a moniker that still carried weight at the time. Brian Eno's ambient music philosophy shared some traits with art deco, as it was music that blended with the surroundings and the decoration, and this is the "most Eno" track on Low, sounding very much like something out of his seminal album Another Green World. And because of Eno's art, decay and inhumaneness are not the only things we hear in this track. A myriad of intriguing sound effects attack you from every direction, as if beneath the lazy stream there's some swirling and bubbling going on, while the fauna around the river is clicking, hissing, gurgling, stridulating and sighing. It's as if while the mainstream has decayed, there are many things happening around it, new artistic languages being formed. The electronic yawning we hear at one point sounds like someone, or something, has just woken up.

And if you put your ear to the ground you could have indeed heard other things awakening. Since the West German government was worried that life under Soviet guns would make the population of West Berlin immigrate to other places, it encouraged young people to go live there and heavily subsidized life in the city. In such a reality, young people didn't have to worry so much about winning in the capitalistic rat race but could think about spiritual development, and the result was that the place became an artistic and cultural hotbed. And it wasn't just West Berlin: the 1970s were the times when young Germans began to take elements of American pop culture and combine them with the traditions of German art to create a new unique German language. It was happening in other places around Europe as well, and moreover, it was reciprocated from the other side: starting around the same time that 'Art Decade' was recorded, there was a new wave of American and British pop bands brewing, some of which followed Bowie in studying the European canon and drawing ideas into their music. When the new wave was unleashed on the world in 1977, the full impact of Low on this generation became apparent.  All over the Western world, elements of pop culture started to mingle with the avant-garde of high art, to bring about an art decade.

 

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