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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Scream Like a Baby

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The Scary Monsters album shows Bowie torn between two worlds. On the one hand, he wants to remain a member of youth culture, the culture whose ethics he's been responsible in shaping. On the other hand, he feels alienated to this culture, starting to develop a grownup mentality which perceives youth behavior as rather silly. He is ready to face the change, ready to embrace the fact that age has caught up with him and made him an adult. But it isn't that easy for him to make the switch, and the most poignant dramatizing of this dilemma is 'Scream Like a Baby'.

The melody is borrowed from 'I am a Laser', a song Bowie wrote for the Astronettes back in 1973 in the heady glam years. And as he did in his glam period, Bowie tells his story through a futuristic parable. The music is a scary mix of roaring guitars and dehumanizing electronics and the settings is a future totalitarian society. Bowie's vocal performance is superb, as it is throughout the album, and uses electronic manipulations to help bring out the drama.

Well I wouldn't buy no merchandise
And I wouldn't go to war
And I mixed with other colours
But the nurse doesn't care
And I hide under blankets
Or did I run away
I really can't remember
Last time I saw the light of day

In a repressive society, the singer was a rebel who wouldn't play by the rules. This is of course unacceptable in such a society, and he is now confined in an asylum where he is under the supervision of nurses. He sounds confused, probably under the influence of drugs, and can't really remember when he was brought there or how, or even if he is still there at all.

But I remember Sam
'Cause he was like me

In his confusion, though, there is one thing he clearly remembers: his friend Sam, another rebel. What happened to Sam?

Scream like a baby
Sam was a gun
And I never knew his last name
And we never had no fun

It sounds like they were more than just rebels and friends, it sounds like they were members in an underground movement that tried to carry out a revolution. As such, they were very secretive and knew very little about each other. The incarcerated singer is screaming like a baby as he thinks of Sam, whom he describes as a gun, an explosive individual.

Well they came down hard on the faggots
And they came down hard on the street
They came down harder on Sam
And they all knew he was beat
He was thrown into the wagon
Blindfolded, chains
And they stomped on us
And took away our clothes and things
And pumped us full of strange drugs

Now we get the story of how they were caught, and a confirmation that they were indeed drugged. The revolution failed, and as we already know, the rebels are not together anymore. Where is Sam?

And oh I saw Sam falling
Spitting in their eyes
But now I lay me down to sleep
And now I close my eyes
Now I'm learning
To be a part of societ… societ… s…

Turns out they had different fates. Sam refused to give up, remaining defiant even after he was captured, and it sounds like he was executed. Our narrator, on the other hand, surrendered. He quit the fight, allowed them to institutionalize him and "rehabilitate" him, and he is now becoming a cog in the totalitarian system. The memory of Sam plagues him, he feels like he betrayed the cause and the memory of his friend, but he just closes his eyes and tries to make the memory go away. He has been tamed.

And this is where we realize that this futuristic story is actually an allegory about Bowie himself. He was part of the rebellious youth culture of the sixties and seventies, saw many of his friends fall victim along the way, and now he feels like he's betraying them by conforming to the world they were trying to overthrow. The concept of "being part of society" is still so repulsive to him that he can't even get it out of his mouth, but this stutter will turn out to be his final protest – he has made the switch. Bowie simply no longer sees himself as part of the counter-culture. As a matter of fact, there was no longer any "counter-culture" to speak of in 1980. This record could be not just about Bowie but about his entire generation, those who survived the ordeals of the previous two decades and have now given up.

No athletic program
No discipline, no book
He just sat in the backseat
Swearing he'd seek revenge

The scary voices running in our narrator's head keep reminding him that there was another way. Sam never gave up. Until his last breath he refused conform, refused to be incorporated by the system. He remained true to his ideals to the very end, and the singer is tortured by the thought that maybe this is what he should have done as well.

But he jumped into the furnace
Singing old songs we loved

But this way is ultimately futile, and Bowie never believed in it. Sam remained faithful to the songs of youth, but he burned himself and died young. Bowie never believed that dying young is the answer, but thought that defeating the system means that you should always stay true to yourself. And that's were Sam was wrong: being true to yourself does not mean that you stay faithful to your ideals and songs. Your self always changes, which means that to remain true to it you also have to occasionally change your songs and your ideals. Bowie would always check himself to see if his music and identity were still true to what he felt inside, and changed them when they weren't. Right now, remaining true to himself means that he has to assume the identity of a responsible adult who is part of society, so despite his revulsion against the thought, he is going to make this change.

Scream like a baby
Sam was a gun
And I never knew his last name
And we never had no fun

Looking back at his life as a rebel, the old rebel now decides that it was no fun at all. He missed out on all the pleasures that you find inside human society, deprived himself of many things. The rebellious cry of youth now seems to him like nothing more than the screams of a baby. The switch has been completed.

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