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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Up the Hill Backwards

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`Up the Hill Backwards` begins with a Bo Diddley beat that remind us of `Panic in Detroit`, flavored with the customary anguished screams from Robert Fripp`s guitar. It sounds somewhat subdued, but we are preparing ourselves for an explosion where Bowie will dive once again into the caldron of urban life. But then, just as we expect a change for the exciting, the music drops and becomes bland, as the singing come in.

The vacuum created by the arrival of freedom
And the possibilities it seems to offer
It`s got nothing to do with you, if one can grasp it
It`s got nothing to do with you, if one can grasp it

For the past decade, Bowie had been diving into the dark side of the times and struggled to find personal solutions to the spiritual questions that plagued him. He came out of it victorious, and was now free of the pains and the doubts he once suffered. But with this freedom, came emptiness. His entire being was based on the struggle to overcome those spiritual problems, and without those struggles his existence has become boring. For the first time in Bowie`s albums he is not the lead vocalist on the track, but singing in unison with Tony Visconti and Lynn Maytland, creating an impersonalized voice that sounds very indifferent to what it says. He still has many years to live ahead of him and the possibilities they offer are endless, but none of them excite him. He feels like these possibilities have nothing to do with him – his mind is not the mind of a person who wants complete freedom but of a person who wants to overcome something.

A series of shocks, sneakers fall apart
Earth keeps on rolling, witnesses falling
It`s got nothing to do with you, if one can grasp it
It`s got nothing to do with you, if one can grasp it

The Earth, in the meantime, keeps on rolling, and all the things he once sang so passionately about are still happening. But while in the past he celebrated the fleeting nature of everything, now he seems to be disgusted by it. All the new things that are happening seem like nothing but a crass series of shocks, and he complains that things that used to be more solid, like shoes, now fall apart very quickly. The "Earth keeps on rolling, witnesses falling" line can be understood in two ways, depending on whether the word "witnesses" is a verb or a noun: either that the Earth is witnessing the fast falling of everything (and consequently the fall of humankind), or that those who stand witness and testify to the bad things in this world are falling after being shot down. But again, he feels like it has nothing to do with him anymore. He is no longer part of that game, he has risen above it.

Yeah yeah yeah
Up the hill backwards
It`ll be alright

And so, he has to make the uphill climb that are all the years he has to live until he dies, but he has to do it while looking backwards at the world he has left behind, wishing he was still part of it. The jungle beat picks up again, representing the world below him, that world he once drew his aesthetic and spiritual powers from, which is now out of his grasp. It is going to be a very long and boring climb, but he consoles himself that it is going to be alright.

It is also possible that Bowie is speaking for his generation, and the three-headed singer represents its collective voice. That generation tried to change the world, and after a two decade struggle has settled and became quite comfortable in the world it had created. Now it has to go on living in the boring present, looking back at its glorious past.

While we sleep they go to work
We`re legally crippled, it`s the death of love
It`s got nothing to do with you, if one can grasp it
It`s got nothing to do with you, if one can grasp it

The dark forces are still out there, still doing their evil work. The sixties promise of a world ruled by love seems to have died. But Bowie has already come to the resolution that these forces will always be there and has made peace with that realization. He is indifferent to them as well.

More idols then realities, oh oh
I`m okay, you`re so so, oh oh

I`m OK, You`re OK was a highly popular practical guide written by the psychiatrist Thomas Harris, aimed to teach people to develop healthy relationships by learning to accept themselves and others. Being a product of the sixties, the book ends with the hope that this approach would heal the world and bring world peace. But Bowie cannot tell himself that. He is OK, but many other people are not. And the pop world he had helped create offers more idols than realities, and doesn`t seem to help the situation.

Yeah yeah yeah
Up the hill backwards
It`ll be alright

And so, Bowie keeps climbing up the hill of his life while looking backwards to the struggles he left behind. As he stops singing the music takes over again, letting loose to convey the urban jungle that is the modern world, and carries on like that to the end of the track. Bowie may have found inner peace, but the world carries on with its wars. In `Panic in Detroit`, Bowie was critical of the revolutionary who thought he could change the world and bring utopia, but at least that rebel was trying to do something about it. `Up the Hill Backwards` represents a consciousness of a generation that has given up on that struggle and left it behind. As we keep on climbing the music slowly fades away from our ears, and sinks into forgetfulness.

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