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פ.י.מ.פ.

(Analyzing Bowie: Let's Dance (the album

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"Because you're young / You'll meet a stranger some night / Because you're young / What could be nicer for you? / And it makes me sad / So I'll dance my life away" sang Bowie in 'Because You're Young', the penultimate track of his coming-of-age album Scary Monsters. This track, like most of the album, expresses his feeling that he has become an adult and therefore can no longer replicate the joyful experiences he once knew. "Strange fascinations, fascinating me," he sang in 'Changes', the record that determined the lifestyle that was supposed to ensure that he will always be able to find joy again, "changes are taking the pace I'm going through". Bowie's recipe for happiness was to set a rhythm of existence that would be in groove with the changes you go through: once you feel like you're setting into a rut, you must open up to a strange fascination that will take over you and change you. But 'Because You're Young' reflects his feeling that he can no longer be fascinated by the strange, and he envies the young ones who still have the chance of meeting a stranger some night and being changed as a result. He is still in that pace of periodically changing, but without that strange fascination, this pace loses the transcendental joy and becomes nothing but repetition, so all he can do is dance his life away without joy or meaning. This is how Scary Monsters ends, and the natural next step seems to be a dance album that would have very little artistic pretensions and be aimed at mainstream success. And that is exactly what Let's Dance is.

But, as it turns out when we listen to the album, dancing is not altogether meaningless as Bowie thought it would be. His dismissal of dancing was very typical of European culture, which regards an action as meaningful only if it achieves some goal. Dancing, in European culture, has been relegated to a functional role, done not for its own sake but for other purposes, like courting. But there are other approaches. In African culture, for instance, dancing is its own purpose, and African-Americans brought this approach into Western pop and slowly changed the Western mind. By the 1960s, African-American musicians created funk, a style which has no forward motion but is all about the joy of dancing in one place and achieving ecstasy by repeating the same motions again and again. Sixties white rock, on the other hand, was still dominated by the European need to get somewhere, to achieve a goal. It was hard for the white mind to comprehend the funk, and Bowie's talk about "dancing my life away" as a symbol of meaninglessness shows that he was still in that frame of mind. But in the time that passed between Scary Monsters and Let's Dance, it seems his frame of mind changed.

This wasn't really a dramatic change. Bowie's seventies work already took rock a step in the direction espoused by funk. His ch-ch-ch-changes ethics, in emphasizing the act of changing instead of where the change takes you to, already taught white kids to forget about the end goal and focus on the process. The idea was to change in the right time and in the right way, and thus to connect with the rhythms of your soul. And from the middle of the decade onward he was working with a funky rhythm section, using the funk to express those rhythms. However, it was never purely funk. It was always mixed with other musical ingredients to create a novelty, the alien music that would change you and take you to another world. He always feared the day that he could no longer find such an alien mix and change entirely, but now that this day has arrived he realizes that there is another way to happiness. Instead of completely transforming, he is going to dig deeper into the funky side of his music, purify it from all other elements, and learn to turn dance into the essence of his existence.

The cover gives us an idea of what he had in mind. We are seeing Bowie dressed as a boxer, with a background of a foggy urban landscape that reminds us of similar landscapes on the cover of Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs. If Bowie was in that picture then he would be yet another stranger in a strange land as he was in those albums, but he is standing in front of it. And actually, it is not a picture but a movie being projected on the wall behind him, a grainy piece of moving urban life, and his standing in the way of the projector makes him cast his shadow on it. The letter "L" is printed on the shadow's left shoulder and is connected with an arrow to an "E" on Bowie's left shoulder, creating the impression that he just jumped out of the movie and into the real world. The arrows continue to connect other letters and form the title "let's dance", and it looks like they depict Bowie's next motions as he apparently jumped out the movie to box against us. Since we recall that one of Bowie's ways to symbolize alienation is to describe a feeling that life is being screened before your eyes instead of being lived (for instance in 'Life on Mars?'), the message seems to be this: until now I was alienated, now I'm actually living my life; until now I was just shadowboxing, now I'm doing the real thing. "I duck and I sway / Shoot at the full Moon / So what's my line? / Shake it, shake it baby," he sings in 'Shake It'. He never knew how to enjoy the motions of his body before, how to enjoy being part of the physical world. With this cover, he emphasizes his physicality.

The cover seems to also be referencing the cover of the previous album, Scary Monsters. There too we saw an image of Bowie casting a shadow. But on that album, the shadow was more real than the image casting it. The image was a painting of a mirror-image of Bowie dressed as Pierrot, while the shadow was of an actual Bowie dressed as Pierrot. Bowie seems to be suggesting that this was the nature of his art until now: he was portraying a character that was a mirror-image to society, not an expression of his own spirit. The Let's Dance cover reverses the picture: this is the actual Bowie jumping out of the shadow of Pierrot, and doing music to express himself. Instead of mirroring other humans, he is going to jump into the ring of human life and take part in the action.

Of course, this is not really how it was. As we saw in our previous analyses, Bowie's different characters were never just mirror-images of society but also expressions of where his spirit was at the moment. But, as usual with Bowie, whenever he shed the skin of his previous incarnations he would emphasize their negative sides. He already started to wash off the white face and take off the clown suit in Scary Monsters. Now he presents an image that shows a different way to fight against the world, ducking and swaying, shaking and dancing, celebrating his physical nature.

The tracks flesh it out. Most tracks on the album are not only danceable and ecstatic but they also rework his old fears and pains and resolve them by transforming their energy into ecstatic dance. 'Modern Love' and 'Let's Dance' continue to lament his old grief about the fleeting nature of love, but resolve it by telling us to enjoy it while it lasts; 'Let's Dance' rips off an Aleister Crowley poem, but turns its dark magic into light joviality; 'Shake It' recalls the frightening repetitive soullessness of 'Chant of the Ever-Circling Skeletal Family', but its repetitiveness becomes funky and fun; the rerecording of 'Cat People' transforms the horror into exultation; and the new rendition of 'China Girl' resolves its violent psychopathic emotions by turning them into sexual lust. Meanwhile, 'Ricochet' shows what happens to people who do not know how to dance and enjoy life, how they become just debris of the modern industrial machine.

This attitude takes Bowie closer to the mainstream, and it seems to be a conscious decision on his part. After the previous album spoke of his wish to "break the ice" and come back down to Earth to live among its people, this album does away with the weirdness and espouses a "normal" and "straight" image. The cover of 'Criminal World' dispenses with the more provocative gender-bending lines of the original, perhaps purposefully indicating that Bowie doesn't want to be associated with gayness anymore, and the maudlin 'Without You' is arguably Bowie's first ever attempt to write a straightforward love song without any symbolism or hidden meanings. His image on the cover isn't pale and ghostly as always but rather tanned and butch, almost macho. There is still something uncanny about it, though, as if it was an alien trying to pass off as a human. Bowie is trying to break in, but it's not for him.

We hear it in the music, too. For the first time, Bowie does not play any instruments on the album, part of a conscious decision on his part to rely more on the talent of others to create the kind of alien sound that his spirit can no longer produce. Here, however, the "alien" sound is not alien to the world, only to Bowie – it is music designed to take him closer to the mainstream. The funky trio Alomar-Murray-Davis, who have been with Bowie for five albums straight, are out just as the funk takes over completely. But it had to be done – they were too edgy for this album, as was producer Tony Visconti who is dropped after four consecutive collaborations. In his place, Bowie teams up with guitarist and producer Nile Rodgers, who made the World dance in the late seventies with his funk-disco outfit Chic and with his productions for the likes of Sister Sledge and Diana Ross. Rodgers then went on to produce Debbie Harry's debut album, creating a hugely successful rock-funk-disco fusion which was what Bowie was aiming for here. The highly accomplished roster of musicians, who mostly come not from rock'n'roll but from the field of jazz-rock fusion, include Omar Hakim on drums, Carmine Rojas on bass, an entire horn section, and an electrifying, relatively unknown blues-rock guitarist named Stevie Ray Vaughan. Together they create a mix that does what it needs to do - make you dance and have fun – but does not make you think deep thoughts or feel any deep emotions. This album is about seizing the day, enjoying this place and moment in time. This is what it should be judged by, and in that, it is a huge success.

Modern Love
China Girl
Let's Dance
Without You
Ricochet
Criminal World
Cat People
Shake It

So, am I going to declare Let's Dance as yet another Bowie masterpiece? Not really. The first three tracks are classics, but then the album takes a marked quality dip. It is a great album, a well-deserved smash that was Bowie's biggest commercial success and turned him into a global megastar, but it isn't perfect. But, who cares? Put it on, and let's dance.

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