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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Boys Keep Swinging

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In 1977, youth culture shook. A new wave of rock'n'roll bands exploded onto the scene, blasting away the old rock establishment and going back to basics in a style known as punk. While mid-seventies rock became very sophisticated and bloated, valuing musicianship and complex creations, punk called for a return to the three-minute pop record. The Punks rejected musicianship and complexity in favor of enthusiasm, excitement and ecstasy, and proudly flaunted their unskillfulness in playing their instruments. Punk viciously attacked all the old rock heroes and called them boring old has-beens, sparing only a few which it regarded as its heroes. One of the main heroes for the Punks was, of course, David Bowie.

Bowie, in the meantime, was recuperating in Berlin, and was doing something completely different while the punk revolution was happening. 'Boys Keep Swinging' seems to be his first reaction to punk, and a pretty enthusiastic one at that. It is a youth anthem, the last Bowie will write, and although it sounds nothing like punk it does have some punk staples. His very accomplished sidemen trade their axes with each other – drummer Dennis Davis plays bass, guitarist Carlos Alomar takes drummer position and bassist George Murray plays keyboards – to get that delicious amateurish effect, and the production creates a wall of sound. It works: the track is full of mirth and excitement, and rings with youthful energy. As always, though, there's some irony in the mix.

Heaven loves ya
The clouds part for ya
Nothing stands in your way
When you're a boy
Clothes always fit ya
Life is a pop of the cherry
When you're a boy

The first verse is straightforward enough: a celebration of youth, of the fun of being a young boy.

When you're a boy
You can wear a uniform
When you're a boy
Other boys check you out
You get a girl
To say your favorite things
When you're a boy

Now comes the twist. The line "you get a girl" seems innocuous enough, just carrying on the theme of the fun of youth. But then he adds almost inaudibly "to say your favorite things", and the mood turns sinister. The freedom he sings about is not for all youth. It's only for the boys, while the girls are still bound by a chauvinistic code which youth culture failed to free itself from. Punk marked the entrance of girls into rock, as there were many female punk musicians who wrote and sang from a girl's perspective and rebelled against this patriarchal society, and Bowie reciprocates with a record that carries a veiled self-criticism of male society. When you realize that, the line "you can wear a uniform" makes the boys seem like an organized militia out to get the girls, and "life is a pop of the cherry" (a euphemism for a woman's loss of virginity) sounds violent and cold. Being a boy in this society is fun, but it isn't fun for the girls.

Another twist comes in the line "other boys check you out", which can be heard as throwing a little homosexuality into this macho society. Bowie affects a manly voice in the delivery of this song, but the backing vocals that now join in for the chorus make it sound like a poncy boy band.

Boys
Boys
Boys keep swinging
Boys always work it out

Again, this can be understood as straightforward celebration, and "swinging" can be taken as just dancing and having fun. But if we take it sexually, it can be heard as a criticism of boys' infidelity.

Uncage the colours
Unfurl the flag
Luck just kissed you hello
When you're a boy

Keeping on with the boy pride parade. But perhaps it also serves to remind us that the boys' world is a violent world divided by colors and flags.

They'll never clone ya
You're always first on the line
When you're a boy

Considering that Bowie-clones were popping up everywhere in the pop world of 1979, these lines too sound ironic.

When you're a boy
You can buy a home of your own
When you're a boy
Learn to drive and everything
You'll get your share
When you're a boy

Again, this is an anthem of freedom and fun, which is tinged with some irony if we remember the girls. The boys are a privileged class, and can do things that not all girls are allowed to do. In all the revolutions that happened in Western culture over the centuries, one thing remained constant: boys kept on swinging. But the new generation of youth culture, with Bowie as its mentor, was beginning to ask: what about the girls?

'Boys Keep Swinging' introduces a new thing into Bowie's art: the use of the video-clip. Bowie was always a pioneer on the visual side of pop, and already created some classic promo clips to records like 'John, I'm Only Dancing', 'The Jean Genie' and 'Life on Mars?'. Now, he became one of the first to seize upon the advancements in digital recordings to create imaginative video-clips (using the digital video technology, as opposed to the more limited analog technology he and others were using before) for his records. The brilliant clip for 'Boys Keep Swinging', in which Bowie plays a swinging boy and three female backup singers (but not of the usual kind), adds another dimension to the hidden gender-relations theme of the track, and is the start for many classic Bowie video-clips that would follow. The Bowie clones all watched and learned, and in a couple of years the video-clip would become an integral part of the pop world.

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