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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Scary Monsters

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"Wash your face before your faded makeup makes a mark / The mirror will watch over you" sang Bowie way back in 1968, in his song 'The Mirror' which he wrote for Lindsay Kemp's play Pierrot in Turquoise. This was the first time we met two of the most enduring images in Bowie's art: Pierrot the clown, and the mirror. Every character that Bowie assumed during the seventies was a version of Pierrot, the clown that always fails, and through presenting those characters Bowie claimed to put a mirror-image in front of humanity's eyes and make it realize its own shortcomings. But he always remembered the warning he gave himself in 'The Mirror': you must remember to look in the mirror yourself and wash off the clown mask when it begins to fade. And so, he would always look in his own mirror reflection to see if his character was still relevant, and once he realized it wasn't he would wash it off and assume another character. He went through the seventies doing that, but as the decade progressed he got increasingly tired with playing characters. It was time for Pierrot himself to look in the mirror, and see if he was still relevant.

On the album cover of Scary Monsters, we see two juxtaposed images. The shadow on the wall shows Pierrot smoking a cigarette, striking a pose that is reminiscent of the "Heroes" album cover. This is the Bowie we've come to know, the Pierrot that wears flamboyant, entertaining and scary costumes. However, in the place where Bowie-Pierrot himself should be, as the figure that casts the shadow, there is instead a portrait of him, which at a closer look is revealed to be a mirror-image (the blue eye as he faces us is on the right). He is shown dressed as Pierrot, but the color is fading off his face. The meaning seems to be this: Bowie is all dressed up as Pierrot again, ready to assume another character and show us our defects yet again, but when he looks into the mirror he sees into his own soul, represented by the portrait, and he sees that it's time to wash off the clown mask for good. He doesn't want to play this role anymore.

This is not surprising, considering what we've heard in his previous two albums. In "Heroes", we've heard Bowie solving the philosophical and ethical problems that plagued his ch-ch-ch-changes lifestyle and creating coherent ethics to live by. In Lodger, we’ve heard him adopting a positive attitude towards life, accepting his past incarnations as part of his identity and looking forward to the future. But with this self-acceptance Bowie became comfortable within his own skin, so it seems natural that he was not so keen on playing characters and mirroring society anymore. This album is about the unmasked Bowie coming to his own, and the problems that arise from that. And oh, there are problems.

In Lodger, we heard Bowie creating a sound that was a mix of his previous styles. While his previous characters all had their own unique sound, the new Bowie is an amalgamation of all of them. The rhythm section is the trusted Davis-Murray-Alomar trio which he began to work with in his soul/funk phase, going through the filter of studio wizardry he was experimenting with in Berlin and with a bit of the old glam rock on top. Scary Monsters is basically the same. The funky trio is still here, the electro-funk-rock mix is still here, Roy Bittan of Station to Station fame is back on piano, there are once again throwbacks to earlier records, and Visconti is still doing his magic in the studio, creating a dense and cutting-edge mix with the aid of Andy Clark's synthesizer and Chuck Hammer's unique guitar-through-synth playing. But while the sound of Lodger was lighthearted, here Robert Fripp is back on lead guitar to combine the new spirit with the tumultuous sound of "Heroes", and while Bowie's singing on that album was somewhat breezy, here it runs the gamut of soul-wrenching emotions. The result is an album full of drama, portraying an artist suffering from enormous inner turmoil.

What's wrong? Why this change in mood? Well, on Lodger Bowie was learning to love himself and his life, to accept his past and look forward to the future. But once he accepted his past as part of himself he eventually had to deal with its dark sides, and this is what we're hearing here. He may be happy with his life now, but his memories and aspirations are still filled with guilt and doubt, and they manifest themselves in the form of scary monsters and super creeps. And in this album, those scary monsters get to have their word.

We hear them in the backing vocals, mainly. Starting from the aggressive Japanese female voice on the opening track, the backing vocals are the main tool for creating the impression that Bowie's soul is being ripped apart. They don't really "back" him at all. Instead of harmoniously complimenting his lead and giving it more strength, they seem to turn against him at every corner. They constantly glitch out of time and sing either before or after him, they sing words that contradict what he is saying, and often they are just mumbling, barking or howling in the background. They represent the bad thoughts in Bowie's head, the inner demons he still has to deal with if he truly wants to become a healthy and happy person. He screams at them to shut up as the opening track ends, but they keep on hounding and haunting him and he has no choice but to face them. The album is the story of Bowie's struggle with them, and our job as analyzers is to figure out what this struggle is all about.

The opening track, 'It's No Game (part 1)', throws us right into the torrid quicksand. We hear Bowie screaming in terror, complaining that he doesn't understand the situation anymore. For someone who built his entire ethics and art around the ability to be in tune with the spirit of the times and affect it, this realization is truly frightening. The fear is manifested in the second track, 'Up the Hill Backwards', in which he describes the rest of his life as devoid of meaning, just going through it while looking backwards on his past glories. This is a fear that has been part of his art ever since 'An Occasional Dream', and now it seems to have become a reality. There are still moments of powerful music in the track, but the singing is not connected to them. Rather, it is sung by three voices that create a depersonalized effect and give the impression that Bowie can no longer draw any music out of his mind as it is no longer in tune with the times. But this is still nothing but a fear. In the following tracks, Bowie finds his voice again and faces up to this new challenge, aiming to figure out why it is that he feels disconnected and how he can overcome this problem and avert this bleak future.

So, why does he feel disconnected? Well, we have to remember that Bowie was part of the sixties counter-culture, which believed that the young generation was here to overthrow the world that the previous generations made for it and create a better world. His art was very critical of this counter-culture, but he still always saw himself as part of the youth revolution and his criticism was aimed at finding solutions to the problems youth culture encountered. But now, he suddenly doesn't feel like part of youth culture anymore but rather as part of the adult world, the world he always regarded as meaningless. He'd like to still be part of youth culture, the place where he found meaning to his existence, but he simply cannot do it anymore. In 'Teenage Wildlife' Bowie surveys the field of young up and coming rock stars and feels sorry for them that they have to go through the same ordeals he went through, ordeals he cannot bring himself to go through anymore. Meanwhile, those kids look up to him as a mentor, which only enhances his feeling that he is not one of them anymore. He makes an effort to be the mentor in 'Because You're Young', but he feels like he cannot really help them because he no longer speaks their language.

But it's even worse than that. In 'Beauty and the Beast' we've already seen Bowie grappling with the feeling that he is partly responsible for some of the bad things that have overtaken youth culture and society at large, and here this feeling is compounded. 'Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)' puts him again in the role of mentor, but a mentor that corrupted and destroyed his young protégé. Bowie tried to teach us to "turn and face the strange ch-ch-changes" as a way to achieve lasting happiness, but when he looks at the culture that came in his wake all he sees is that the ch-ch-ch-changes have become just empty and oppressive fa-fa-fa-fashion. When Bowie surveys the pop culture of his time, he finds that it has more idols than realities; that everything is just the same old thing in brand new drag; that it has no everlasting aesthetics, and its songs please the ear but leave the mind alone; that it is war-torn and resigned, full of different factions that tear each other apart; and that because it is so weak and vacuous it has no moral compass and there's a danger that at any moment a goon squad will come to town and impose its rules, or that the government would come down hard on the streets and no one will be there to stand up to it. He feels responsible for this situation, and the guilt is one of the monsters that creep in his psyche.

Then, there's the personal spiritual crisis. Personally, Bowie did manage to solve all the ethical problems he found in his ch-ch-ch-changes lifestyle, and in Lodger we saw him looking forward to a life of sailing from one exciting place to the other. But a paradox lay in the heart of that album: the thing that always drove Bowie to change was that he lacked inner harmony and so had to escape his identity into a new identity that was harmonious for a while, until that identity too lost its harmony and he had to change again. But once he solved the problems in his lifestyle, inner harmony was achieved and the drive to change was lost. So, at the very moment that he finally figured out the way to a happy life, he lost the very thing that would ensure he could keep on living it.

Or has he? Maybe all that is needed is another change? This is what 'Ashes to Ashes' is about. In 'Ashes to Ashes', Bowie once again turns to look at himself, and realizes that there's a part in him that has become a residual hindrance to his happiness. That part is none other than "Major Tom", or rather, the part in him that believes that every change should be complete, that he must completely transform and leave his old world behind as he moves to the other. In 'Move On' and 'Red Sails', on the previous album, we already saw Bowie adopting a different attitude: not an astronaut but a sailor, someone who moves from place to place but remains in the same world. He is happy with himself now, so he doesn't need to completely transform. But there was still this part in his mind that whispered to him that true joy comes only in reaching some planet glowing in the distance, and by killing the super-creep Major Tom Bowie announces that he is getting rid of this part. He will continue to change, but his transformations will not be total. From here on he will always be David Bowie and not some character, and the changes will be partial.

With that determination, Bowie actually bids farewell to youth. In 'Changes' he linked total transformations to the age of youth, the age when your identity isn't congealed yet so you can undergo such volatile transformations. He has now decided to become more stable, and that implies he has become an adult. We've heard Bowie showing signs of growing maturity in his previous albums as well, but here he makes the conscious decision to face the change and embrace the identity of a grownup. Adulthood was always a scary monster to him. To be happy and solve the crisis, he needs to learn to stop being afraid.

The final four tracks on the album show the adult Bowie gradually coming to the fore and shedding the skin of youth. In 'Scream Like a Baby' he takes the role of a former revolutionary who has given up and conformed to society's norm, and throughout the piece you can hear Bowie dealing with the disgust he feels in himself for doing so. But it has to be done, and in the next track 'Kingdom Come' we hear Bowie resigning himself to a more mundane kind of life. 'Because You're Young' sees him readjusting his attitude towards youth culture, accepting that he no longer fully understands it but can still give some advice as an adult who went through similar things. And in the closing track, 'It's No Game (part 2)', Bowie sings the opening song again but this time with acceptance. Whereas the first version expressed terror at the feeling that he no longer understands the youth, here he sounds amused. The way in which he now describes the music of the new wave ("just big-heads and drums, full speed and pagan") sounds like a crabby old man's description of rock'n'roll, as if Bowie is making fun of himself for becoming the people who once made fun of him. So maybe his earlier frets about the state of today's music are simply his problem, not a real problem in today's youth culture. We are hearing a Bowie who has come to terms with his age and slips comfortably into the new role he already began to develop in Lodger: a responsible adult who uses his art to highlight what needs to be shown about the human condition, and serves as the voice of reason and morality.

When we understand that, we can hear that Bowie does actually manage to strike some sort of accord with the new wave. The sound of the album is clearly influenced by the synth-pop bands that began to populate the British charts, and the guitar driven drama of tracks like 'Teenage Wildlife' and 'Scream Like a Baby' seem to be influenced by the complicated tracks of American punk band Television, whom he also covers in 'Kingdom Come'. There are still ways in which Bowie can connect to youth culture and draw inspiration, even if he isn't the driving force anymore.

So, Bowie has managed to exorcise all those inner demons that still held him back, the scary monsters and super creeps that prevented him from being fully happy with the ethics he developed in his previous albums. In the closing track, the backing vocals finally stabilize and do what they're supposed to be doing: sing in harmony and support the lead. All the tension and drama are gone, making way to contentment and amusement. Inner harmony is achieved, at last.

It's No Game (part 1)
Up the Hill Backwards
Scary Mosters (and Super Creeps)
Ashes to Ashes
Fashion
Teenage Wildlife
Scream Like a Baby
Kingdom Come
Because You're Young
It's No Game (part 2)

Scary Monsters would become the benchmark against which all of Bowie's subsequent albums would be judged ("his best album since Scary Monsters"). It attests to the dip in quality in his albums that happened after it, but there's another reason: Scary Monsters sets the bar so high that it's hard to reach. It is the ripest album Bowie ever made, bringing together everything he learned over the years and condensing it all perfectly into a masterpiece. Arguably, the crowning jewel of Bowie's career.

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