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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Shake It

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Back in the 1970s, Bowie was playing the clown, the mirror-image to humankind that was supposed to expose its fallibility and mock its presumptions of grandeur. One of the things he ridiculed the most was the idea of utopia, the idea that humankind can devise a perfect world for itself and live in a permanent perfect society. This idea, showed Bowie in his art, would only lead to a totalitarian nightmare, and his solution was to free his mind from the notion that one should aspire to permanent perfection. It is actually in the change that humans can find happiness, preached Bowie, and one of the derivatives of this insight is that there is no such thing as utopia: humankind should aspire to live not in an eternal never-changing heaven but rather in a reality that is always changing. And Bowie's insights infiltrated deeply into the consciousness of his fans: the punk and new wave revolution eschewed the notions of utopia and permanence and internalized the understanding that one should aspire to always change. The pop world of the early eighties was already operating completely under this guideline.

The Let's Dance album is Bowie's first reaction to this new reality. The previous album Scary Monsters already shows him coming to terms with the realization that the pop world has caught up with him, and there we saw him wondering what place there was for his art now that he is not unique anymore. Here, he is beginning to come up with an answer.

I feel like a sail-boat
Adrift on the sea
It's a brand new day
So when you gonna phone me
I could take you to heaven
I could spin you to hell
But I'll take you to New York
It's the place that I know well

Once again we encounter the image of Bowie as a sailor, someone moving from place to place with no place to call home. It is an image he adopted in the album Lodger, when he finally perfected his lifestyle of impermanence. As we hear, he is not interested in boring permanent places like heaven or hell, but prefers to move between various places in our world, where you can find awesome spots like New York.

Sitting on a flagstone talking to a faceless girl
Wondering what to say but my eyes do the talking so well

But there is now a feeling of emptiness to this lifestyle. Bowie is singing this song to a girl he is trying to seduce, trying to get her excited about his type of life. This couplet sees him breaking away of the conversation for a moment and taking an outsider's look at the situation, and it doesn't sound that exciting. It used to be cutting edge, but now it's the norm.

I duck and I sway - What's my line
Shoot at a full moon - What's my line
So what's my line? - Shake it, shake it baby

But then, he realizes that he is enjoying another aspect of it. The conversation itself is like a boxing match, where he has to always come up with a line to counter the woman. He is enjoying the playfulness of it, this movement of shaking about in one place, more than the movements towards his destination. To go back to the sailboat metaphor, he realizes that it isn't where he is sailing to but the rocking from side to side on the waves that gives him pleasure.

Repetitiveness was always one of Bowie's biggest fears. At the end of the album Diamond Dogs, the people of Hunger City who have fallen under the spell of utopian thinking believe that they are building a perfect world for themselves, but they end up as automatons moving in a never-ending circle controlled by a totalitarian state and chanting "shake it up, shake it up, move it up, move it up". They are more machines than humans. But now, Bowie finds something else in repetitiveness. As "shake it up, shake it up" becomes "shake it, shake it baby", the repetitive sound of humanity-turned-into-machine becomes a celebration of the fun of rhythm and dance and the human interaction that surrounds them.

This is what funk brought into the pop world. All forms of music that came out of rock'n'roll had a forward thrust, and drove the listener to want to get to someplace else. Funk is about giving in to the ecstasy of repetitive rhythm, setting yourself free from the need to get to another place and learning to enjoy the place you're at. Bowie's ch-ch-ch-changes lifestyle came out of rock'n'roll, and was also about always getting to a different place, but now that he finds no point in it anymore, funk provides the answer. He has been working with a funky rhythm section since 1974, but it was always in the background; now the funk becomes the main thing. As we listen to him sing "shake it, shake it baby", we are reminded of yet another record: the Jackson Five's funky classic 'ABC'. In Let's Dance, Bowie is learning the ABC of a different logic, a logic that finds happiness not in going from place to place but in moving from side to side. 'Shake It', with its interplay between instruments that play nothing but basic rhythmic lines and give the impression of someone bobbing and weaving but staying in one place, is the most obvious testament to it.

Cause love is the answer
Love's talking to me
I'd scream and I'll fight for you
You're better than money

Again, Bowie affirms that even in this new logic, the focus should be "we", not "I". Dancing is better when it is done with another person.

We're the kind of people
Who can shake it if we're feeling blue
When I'm feeling disconnected well I sure know what to do
Shake it baby

"Shake it" has another meaning, which Bowie utilizes here: to snap out of something. He was feeling disconnected from the new pop world, and that made him feel blue. But with funk he can shake that feeling, and be in the groove again.

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