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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Because You're Young

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What was the biggest war of the nineteen-sixties? Was it the Vietnam war? The cold war? The race war? The gender war? Nah. Those were all important battles, to be sure, but the real war was the generational war between young and old. It was the culmination of more than a century of youth angst, as ever since the modern state emerged with all its power, imposing a uniform code on all its subjects, young people felt compelled to resist its steamrolling pressure, to stay true to themselves, and old people seemed to them like people who were robbed of their souls and became just cogs in the system. Being young became synonymous with being a non-conformist, and anyone who conformed to society's expectations was seen as someone who grew old and betrayed himself. This "us vs. them" mentality reached its peak in the sixties, as an entire generation heeded the Who's credo: "I hope I die before I get old", believing that it was better to die than becoming a conformed adult. The rock world saw itself as the voice of youth culture, and the question of how to remain young forever was one of the biggest challenges rock artists dealt with. Some literally believed that it was better to die young and leave a beautiful corpse than to grow old and rot, but that was not Bowie's position. Bowie wanted to beat the system, to stay true to himself without dying, and he seemingly found the way to do so: always check yourself to see that your identity is consistent with what you feel inside, and change your identity when needed to remain consistent. It worked out pretty well for an entire decade, but now, at the dawn of a new decade, he finds himself in a new hitch: his inside feelings tell him that he is not young anymore, that he actually wants to be part of "conformed" society. To stay true to himself, then, he must adopt the identity of an adult, but since he still sees himself as part of the "us" (youth) it's hard for him to become part of "them". The entire Scary Monsters album deals with this inner conflict, and 'Because You're Young', the penultimate track, pretty much presents the resolution.

The music starts dramatically, preparing us for the momentous realization we are about to face, before changing into a driving guitar riff provided by none other than Pete Townshend, the man responsible for the line "I hope I die before I get old". The riff will dominate the record, placing us in the world of rock'n'roll and youth culture, which Bowie still feels part of. But as the lyrics come in, the ambivalence of his feeling becomes prevalent.

Psychodelicate girl - come out to play
Little metal faced-boy don't stay away
They're so war-torn and resigned
She can't talk any more
What are they trying to prove?
What would they like to find?

The record begins with Bowie pleading with the young generation of pop to come out and play with him, still wanting to belong. But it's not only that: he is also calling on them to come out and play with each other. By 1980, the pop world, which was once united in the fight against the adult world, splintered into many different tribes which started to drift apart from each other and did not keep the fertilizing dialogue between styles that so enriched the sixties. Bowie describes it, as he often does, as a troubled relationship between a boy and a girl, each representing a different musical style. He wants to help them, he wants to save youth culture from this fragmentation, but since he cannot connect with them anymore he can't do much.

It's love back to front and no sides - like I say
These pieces are broken - like I say
These pieces are broken
Hope I'm wrong but I know

They've got it backwards, he is telling them. They are going the wrong way, a way that will not lead to happiness. He is trying to impart his knowledge, hoping that they will listen, but he sounds defeated. Records like 'Changes', 'Young Americans' and '"Heroes"' were a reaction to a crisis in his soul that reflected a crisis in youth culture, and the solutions they presented were meant to save not just himself but also set youth culture on a new path. Now, however, his personal crisis is essentially different from the crisis in youth culture, and he no longer knows how to solve the problems these kids are going through. This is their own crisis, something he is not part of, and they will have to work it out themselves.

He punishes hard
was loving her such a crime
She took back everything she said
Left him nearly out of his mind
They're people I know - people I love
They seem so unhappy - dead or alive

The second verse is essentially the same as the first, only it gets worse. The two former lovers drift even further away and start hurting each other. Bowie feels how his precious youth culture disintegrates before his eyes, but he cannot do anything to stop it.

Because you're young
you'll meet a stranger some night
Because you're young -
what could be nicer for you

The chorus shows Bowie finally facing up to reality, and completing his switch from youth to grownup: it is no longer "we" who are young, but "you". He speaks as an adult delivering a message to the youth, and he has some encouraging words for them. They may be out of love now, he says, but since they are still young they can always hope to meet someone someday and fall in love again. That's the simple way to understand these lyrics, but there is also a more philosophical way, which is tied to Bowie's own history. He knows that whenever he felt alienated and spiritually destitute there was a cultural alien that came and presented him with a new way of life, which he could then emulate and experience the highest form of joy. And he knows that these young kids will probably also meet these strangers, these cultural aliens, and have those experiences as well.

And it makes me sad
So I'll dance my life away
A million dreams, a million scars

…but for him, it's all over. Once he accepted that he is not young anymore, he gave up on those experiences. The highest form of joy that he knew was when he would fuse with an alien and completely transform himself, and he could do these total transformations as long as his identity wasn't fixed. But now he has become more stable and embraced his identity and his past, and he doesn't feel the drive to give it all up for another transformation. Which means that his path to ultimate joy is now blocked, or at least that's what it looks like at the moment. All he can do is dance his life away, feeding on the dreams and nursing the scars of the past, and hope that these kids will find a way to work it out. It's no longer his world.

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