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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Under Pressure

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In July 1981, as Bowie was in a Switzerland studio to record 'Cat People', he bumped into the members of Queen who were also using the studio at the time. The two legendary glam acts jammed together for a while, and eventually developed a piece Queen was working on into a duet that became a massive hit. There is a debate over how much Bowie contributed to the piece, and there are even those who credit him with creating the classic Roger Deacon bass line, undoubtedly its most recognizable feature. When it comes to the lyrics, however, I believe I detect Bowie's fingerprints much more than Queen's. This is very much in line with his Post-'"Heroes"' stance, and can actually be considered an integral part of his thematic and spiritual development. I shall analyze it as if it is Bowie's message.

Queen, at the time, was in the process of moving from the grandiose glam sound of their classic seventies albums to a funkier, more minimalist sound. Bowie, of course, was way ahead in that, so he was already very comfortable with that sound and could fit in easily. The record sets a great mood right away, with some finger-snapping grooviness on top of a great bass line, but the focal point is the summit meeting between two of the most celebrated vocalists of rock. Freddie Mercury and David Bowie are pitted against one another in a duel which requires each of them to bring his entire arsenal to outclass the opponent, and they both deliver the goods. In the end, the only winner is the listener.

Pressure, pushing down on me
Pressing down on you, no man asks for

Bowie and Mercury sing the first two lines together, presenting the theme: the pressure that modern life puts on humans. Now Mercury's operatic tenor takes over solo, to elaborate some more about it:

Under Pressure
That burns a building down
Splits a family in two
Puts people on streets

And then the record picks up a notch, as Bowie shows his vocal power with a rousing retort:

It's the terror of knowing
What this world is about
Watching some good friends
Screaming let me out

It's not just the pressure, it's the awareness of it. Many people can live with the pressure without really feeling it, because they have the ability to ignore and suppress the bad things they are seeing around them. But Bowie has vowed to bear witness to the horrors of the modern world, to stand with the people who are suffering from its outcomes, and because of that he feels terror. His delivery makes us feel it as well, but then Mercury joins him on the last line and offers solace with a soothing prayer:

Pray tomorrow takes me higher
Pressure on people
People on streets

Mercury's prayer helps to alleviate the mood and inject some hope, but then Bowie joins him and brings him back down to the harsh reality. Nevertheless, Mercury still sounds more playful than terrorized, and he continues to scat a bit before singing actual words again:

Chippin' around
Kick my brains 'round the floor
These are the days
It never rains but it pours

Mercury continues to be the voice that is less aware of the causes of the pressure, just feels it. These lyrics are not great poetry, but he sings them so beautifully that it's hard not to melt. Listening to Mercury, we think that it's not so bad, that we can just go on with our life and disregard the pressure. But Bowie's voice is building up in the background, until he launches once again into the bridge, sounding even more terrorized than before:

It's the terror of knowing
What this world is about
Watching some good friends
Screaming let me out
Pray tomorrow takes me higher-higher-high...
Pressure on people
People on streets

With Bowie setting such a frightful mood, Mercury needs to make full use of his incredible vocal range to uplift us again, and his prayer takes us even higher than before. But then, as Bowie drags him down, he finally faces up to the pressure. The two men's voices drop into a whisper:

Turned away from it all
Like a blind man
Sat on the fence but it don't work
Keep coming up with love
But it's so slashed and torn
(Why, why, whhhhhyyyy??)
Love love love love
Insanity laughs under pressure we're cracking

This sounds like a piece of Bowie's own history. He turned his back on the pain of the world, drifted into his solitude, tried to live in his inner world, but then realized it cannot be done. The Modern Western mind believes in the primacy of the individual, believes that we are born separated and that we have to go out of ourselves to connect with others and find love. In his Berlin solitude, as he was gaining new perspective of the world, Bowie realized that this philosophy got it backwards. It is natural for us to feel empathy and love to others, and you cannot deny those feelings. And because of that, you cannot ignore the sufferings of others, and your heart is slashed and torn as you see them cracking under the pressure. Mercury finally gets it as well, and his terror is expressed in a heart-wrenching "why?" scream that drives the record into a climax, as if the walls are crashing in on us. But Bowie has an answer: in the face of this harsh reality, we reassert our belief in love, fighting in its name and overcoming whatever this reality throws in our direction. Mercury picks up on this theme, and bursts out in a stirring plea:

Can't we give ourselves one more chance?
Why can't we give love that one more chance?
Why can't we give love give love give love?
Give love give love give love give love give love

And then he passes the torch to Bowie, who carries it in the most inspiring moment of the record, sweeping everything with him in an anthem for the power of love:

Cause love's such an old fashioned word
And love dares you to care
For the people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way
Of caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is ourselves under pressure
Under pressure

The record ends on a soft note, but its power lingers on and decrees the approach for future battles. It's the same message as we heard in '"Heroes"', but spelled out more clearly and simply. The sixties hope of creating a utopian world ruled by love may have died, and we must go on living in a society that puts such pressure on us that we might crack. But we keep on believing in love, and we refuse to turn our back on the plight of others. This approach makes us feel the pressure even more and tears our hearts, but it also fills us with heroism and empowers us to reach new heights. Love lives on.

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