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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Teenage Wildlife

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In this extraordinary track, Bowie goes back to singing about youth culture and pop culture, the two subject matters he totally mastered (you might even say masterminded) throughout the seventies. But now, at the cusp of a new decade, we feel a change. Bowie used to regard himself as the spokesperson of the youth, lashing in its name against the adult establishment. But when he talks about youth now, he suddenly addresses it in second person…

Well, how come you only want tomorrow
With its promise of something hard to do
A real life adventure worth more than pieces of gold
Blue skies above and sun on your arms
Strength in your stride and hope in those squeaky clean eyes
You'll get chilly receptions everywhere you go
Blinded with desire - guess the season is on

The first verse is describing a young lad making his first steps in the big world. All his thoughts are on the glorious future awaiting him, and he wants his life to be something special. Robert Fripp (with the help of Chuck Hammer) shows him the way with a rousing guitar riff reminiscent of '"Heroes"' and the backing vocals surround him with warm encouragement, as the kid imagines himself strong enough to conquer the world and isn't deterred by the chilly receptions he might encounter. Bowie, of course, is describing himself as a teenager. But he is not a teenager any more. This frame of mind that is completely future-oriented, that "only wants tomorrow", seems strange to him now. He has already gone through his struggles, carved his place in the world, and his mind is more present-oriented. The only way left for him to go back to that frame of mind is to do it vicariously through others and describe them in song. His singing is brazen, trying to convey the brashness and high expectations of this young lad, but it is theatrical: Bowie isn't that lad any more.

As the first verse ends, the music soars with a beautiful Fripp-Hammer guitar duet. The boy is about to take on the world.

So you train by shadow boxing, search for the truth
But it's all, but it's all used up
Break open your million dollar weapon
And you push, still you push, still you push your luck

Turns out it's not as easy as this kid thought. Again, it's hard not to think of Bowie ten years ago, when he was searching for his truth and found a million dead and streets and that "it's all, it's all used up". The kid works hard, uses all his gifts, but he still needs a lot of luck to succeed. Davis' drumming, which at first was grand and gave a lot of space for the music to unfold, turns into a pounding stomp as if the kids is banging his head against a world that wouldn't let him in, and will continue in this manner to the end of the record. Bowie's singing expresses frustration.

A broken nosed mogul are you
One of the new wave boys

He did succeed in the end, though, and became a mogul. But his broken nose shows the price he had to pay to get there. If before we felt that Bowie was singing about himself ten years ago, now we are snapped back into the present, as he makes it clear that this kid is one of the new wave boys.

Same old thing in brand new drag
Comes sweeping into view
As ugly as a teenage millionaire
Pretending it's a whizz kid world

…and we hear what Bowie thinks about some of these new wave kids. They are obnoxious brats who think they invented the world, when actually they are just doing the same old thing that his generation was doing. Bowie is beginning to think like an adult, irritated by the kids traversing on his lawn.

You'll take me aside, and say
"Well, David, what shall I do?
They wait for me in the hallway"
I'll say "Don't ask me, I don't know any hallways"

To add to his ambivalence, he finds himself in the role of mentor, as this generation of new wave kids see him as a role-model and look to him for guidance. This kid that has worked hard to become famous now encounters the dark side of fame, being hounded by the media and the fans, and he asks for Bowie's advice on how to deal with it. But Bowie doesn't know what to tell him: he never figured it out either. He sounds frightened and confused, stumbling over his line and falling behind the backing vocals, creating a disorienting effect.

But they move in numbers and they've got me in a corner
I feel like a group of one, no-no
They can't do this to me
I'm not some piece of teenage wildlife

The kid suddenly feels like a hunted animal. He is only a teenager, and he's not prepared yet to face the big time. Bowie is undoubtedly thinking about himself as well, remembering all the things he went through as a result of his young fame, and can sympathize with the kid and convey his terror and anxiety. It is also possible that he is actually singing for himself at the present day and age, feeling hunted by all these new wave kids who want his guidance, and protests that he doesn't want to play this game anymore.

Those midwives to history put on their bloody robes
The word is that the hunted one is out there on his own

Bowie said in an interview that the bloody "midwives to history" are "the ones who would not have you be fulfilled". I think he means that they don't let your spiritual pregnancy run its course but pressure you to deliver your art half-made, wanting to put their own mark on history and make money in the process. They are the ones that hunt you down and don't let you develop in the way you should. Bowie mutters these lines in anger, undoubtedly thinking of what they did to him.

You're alone for maybe the last time
And you breathe for a long time
Then you howl like a wolf in a trap
And you daren't look behind

Now he goes back to thinking about the kid, and his singing changes again. The music becomes ominous and terrifying, the backing vocals go into a disconcerting drone, and Bowie howls the feelings of the boy who has become a hunted beast. Then, his voice turns breathless as he tries to escape:

You fall to the ground like a leaf from the tree
And look up one time at that vast blue sky
Scream out aloud as they shoot you down
No no, I'm not a piece of teenage wildlife
I'm not a piece of teenage wildlife

Finally, the kid is shot down by those hunting him. He was never given a chance to mature and find out who he really is, but got used by the system when he was still too young to know how to deal. He is another victim of the cruel world of show business.

Fripp now launches into a guitar solo, at first soaring like he did at the beginning but then falling into a repetitive routine that sounds like a death march. The kid's spirit has been crushed.

And no one will have seen
And no one will confess
The fingerprints will prove that you couldn't pass the test
There'll be others on the line filing past, who'll whisper low
I miss you he really had to go
Well each to his own, he was
Another piece of teenage wildlife, oh-oh-oh-ohh
Another piece of teenage wildlife, oh-oh-oh-ohh
Another piece of teenage wild...

The final verse seems to be happening at the kid's funeral, with people going by the coffin to bid their farewell and defining him as just the thing he didn't want to become: just another piece of teenage wildlife. No one mentions the culpability of the showbiz world in this tragedy. The guitars are set free again as the spirit of humanity keeps on through the next batch of teenage wildlife, but he is no longer part of it. Finally, Bowie gets stuck on the last word, which becomes a recurring "waah! waah!" His attempt to go back to youth ends with him screaming like a baby.

Bowie had always celebrated youth, seeing it as the greatest period, the period where you can grow and change. Looking back, and seeing all the damage he has suffered because he was not wise enough to the ways of the world, he now sees it also as a state that is very vulnerable. And so he's ambivalent, caught between youth and adulthood, not wanting to let go but unable to go back. Where will he turn?

This great song had to wait fifteen years to be performed on stage. It didn't disappoint.

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