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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Cat People

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The seventies, for Bowie, ended with a personal and artistic triumph. He managed to work out most of the issues and the problems he was grappling with through his art throughout the decade, and achieved (at least judging by his records) inner peace. But with this triumph came a new snag: it was the struggle to overcome those problems that elevated his art to such heights, and now that he did overcome them, what is there left to sing about? One of the main problems he had to deal with in the eighties was finding subject matter for his art, and he would find it increasingly harder to do as the decade progressed.

One solution was to rely on other artists to provide him with stuff to sing about. For instance, movie directors. Starting from this record, Bowie would lend his talent to write the theme songs to several movies during the decade, and when he did he would almost always excel and deliver a beauty. The movie Cat People was a 1982 remake to the classic 1942 thriller, directed by Paul Schrader and scored by Giorgio Moroder. The two had already worked together successfully on Schrader's previous movie American Gigolo (1980), on which Moroder collaborated with Blondie to produce the hit record 'Call Me', and then simply created musical variations of it to score the whole movie. Now they asked Bowie to help them do the same for Cat People, to create a killer record that could be developed into an entire soundtrack. Bowie did not disappoint. With the musical atmosphere set by Moroder and the subject matter provided by Schrader, it was very easy for him to work his magic.

The original Cat People was a horror-noir directed by Jacques Tourneur, and it tells the story of an American man who falls in love with a foreign woman who has a dark secret: she came from a village of Satan worshippers and is therefore cursed to transform into a deadly panther whenever she feels jealousy, lust or anger. The movie is noted for its original idea of not showing us the monster itself, only its shadows and roars and the reactions of people to it. It achieves a strong psychological effect where the monster is a symbol of human dark feelings. Schrader's remake is very different, as the new innovations in special effects and makeup enabled him to reimagine it as a straight-out horror flick where the subtlety is replaced by gore, kinky sex and astounding images of people transforming into panthers. The new storyline makes the woman unaware of the curse, and adds a brother who finds her and tries to teach her about it. Their predicament is that they transform into panthers whenever they have sex with humans, and then they must kill someone to regain their human form. The way to prevent this is to have sex only with each other, but the girl refuses to enter this incestuous relationship and prefers to have a relationship with the human she loves, thus incurring her brother's jealousy and setting the string of events that provide the horror that the audience craves. With the Goth subculture now in full swing, and with Bowie seen as one of its godfathers, it was only natural that he would be asked to provide the theme song.

But it was surely Giorgio Moroder's involvement in the project that drew Bowie to it. The Italian Moroder was a leading figure in European disco, that less funky, more electronically oriented branch of disco that complimented the American style. His clever electronic pieces had an effect on Bowie's 1976-77 material, and like many European electronic artists he was sought by Hollywood film directors to provide soundtracks for their movies. For Cat People he created a song driven by jungle drums and atmospheric keyboards over standard catchy rock music. This already provides the drama – all that's left for Bowie to do is to act it out.

See these eyes so green
I can stare for a thousand years
Colder than the moon
It's been so long
Feel my blood enraged
It's just the fear of losing you
Don't you know my name
Well, you been so long
And I've been putting out fire
With gasoline

It starts slow and full of menace, as Bowie's lyrics basically describe the feelings of these cat people in the predicament they are in. The singer is someone who feels passion to another person, and hopes that this person feels the same way. This is the only person he wants to be with, and feels insane jealousy at the thought of losing her. He's been waiting a long time for her (in the movie, the brother was looking for his sister for years after they were separated as children), and the fire of lust burns inside him. He's telling us that he's been "putting out fire…" and we wait to hear what he did to quench these flames, but then Bowie shouts "with gasoleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeene!" and the music takes off as we realize that whatever he did has only made the fire burn stronger.

See these eyes so red
Red like jungle burning bright
Those who feel me near
Pull the blinds and change their minds
It's been so long

The singer now goes through a transformation. His eyes change from green to red, and he becomes a menacing and dangerous being. Transformation is a central theme in Bowie's work, but here it seems like the singer has no control over his changes. This theme song, then, gives Bowie the opportunity to sing about one of his biggest fears.

Still this pulsing night
A plague I call a heartbeat
Just be still with me
Ya wouldn't believe what I've been through
You've been so long
Well it's been so long
And I've been putting out fire with gasoline
Putting out fire with gasoline

This new, wild incarnation lets loose and gives in to the lust. The drama reaches its peak.

See these tears so blue
An ageless heart that can never mend
These tears can never dry
A judgment made can never bend
See these eyes so green
I can stare for a thousand years
Just be still with me
You wouldn't believe what I've been through

Yet another transformation, and it seems that now he regrets what he did while he was letting loose. But since he cannot control his changes, he is doomed to live like this forever.

There is one thing missing from the lyrics: they don't mention cat people. Actually, they have very little to do with the story of the movie. The record connects to the feelings of the heroes, but weaves them into a more universal story of how your passions, if you don't know how to control them, can take over and change your life. And this would be the model that Bowie would follow in his movie theme songs: they will be very loosely connected to the movies themselves, but develop an idea that is taken from the script to express something that is more relevant to Bowie's art. It would prove to be a very satisfying formula for everyone involved.

One of the pieces developed by Moroder for the soundtrack was 'The Myth', a variation on 'Cat People', to which Bowie contributed vocals.

The single came out in 1982 and became a minor hit despite its length. Bowie then decided to include the song on his next album Let's Dance, but rerecorded it to fit with the soundscape of that album. Unfortunately, drama was one of the departments in which American disco was inferior to its European counterpart, and producer Nile Rogers failed to replicate Moroder's intensity. It is still a fine recording, though, which adds to the hit-power of the album.

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