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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Neighborhood Threat

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So, in Lust for Life, Iggy Pop comes to the realization that life is good and worth living all way through. That means that he has to come to terms with human society. Until now, he was living in his own world, focused on his own death trip, not caring what the rest of humanity thought of him. Now that he wants to live, he must determine his place in society.

Down where your paint is cracking look down your backstairs buddy
Somebody's living there and he don't really feel the weather
And he don't share your pleasures, no, he don't share your pleasures
Did you see his eyes? Did you see his crazy eyes?

Iggy may have chosen to live human life, but he still refuses to conform to human society's norms. He is the outsider, the one who lives on the streets, and he enjoys attracting the attention of conformed folks.

And you're so surprised he doesn't run to catch your ash
Everybody always wants to kiss your trash

The outsider feels free because he doesn't bow to the expectations of others. They are used to people who define themselves by materialistic measures, but he has different measures to assess himself.

And you can't help him, no one can
And now that he knows
There's nothing to get
Will you still place your bet
Against the neighborhood threat?

The conformed person he is speaking to thinks that he is crazy, but he shows him that there's logic to his madness. He is trying to put doubt into his mind, make him think that perhaps playing by society's rules is placing your bet on the wrong horse.

Somewhere a baby's feeding, somewhere a mother's needing
Outside her boy is trying but mostly he is crying
Did you see his eyes? Did you see his crazy eyes?
And you're so surprised he doesn't run to catch your ash
Everybody always wants to kiss your trash
But you can't help him, no one can
And now that he knows
There's nothing to get
Not in this place, not in your face
Will you still place your bet
Against the neighborhood threat?

The second verse is basically more of the same, and yes, all of this is quite cliché. Iggy is far from being the first nonconformist who claims to be superior to conformed people. But in the context of Iggy's own development, it is a significant step. While until now he didn't care about society, now he tries to define his position in it. He will be the one who lives in it but not abide by its rules, and will present an alternative that others can follow. The music is not the nihilistic pounding of the Stooges or the robotic repetitiveness of The Idiot, but good old rock music that expresses feelings and passions and enjoyment in human interaction. Iggy wants to be part of our neighborhood, even if he is a threat.

Bowie, who produced the track, went through a similar process at the time and also redefined himself as an outsider that nevertheless affirms the basic goodness of human life and human society. By the time he came around to cover this song, however, it was 1984, and he was already in a different place. By now he was no longer the outsider, but an "adjusted" individual who was adopted by the mainstream. When he sings the chorus he makes just a little change, but this change reverses its meaning: instead of singing "will you still place your bet against the neighborhood threat?" he sings "will you still place your bet on the neighborhood threat?", essentially telling us that being an outsider is ultimately not a winning endeavor. But Bowie has not been completely incorporated. His second verse is different than Iggy's, and gives a new meaning to the song.

Somewhere a baby's bleeding
Somewhere a mother's needing
Outside a boy is lying
But mostly he is crying
And he just shouts in anger
You'll find him interesting
Look at his eyes
Did you see his crazy eyes?
You're so surprised he doesn't build for you
Everybody always wants to run with you
And you can't help him, no one can
And now that he knows
There's nothing to get
Will you still place your bet
On the neighborhood threat?

In Iggy's version, it was obvious that the singer himself was the neighborhood threat (even as he was singing about him in third person), and Iggy was identifying with him. Here, Bowie subtly switches to the position of a third party telling the story and criticizing both the outsider and society. He no longer identifies with the outsider, but he does not place his bet on the conformed person either. As someone who has always been an outsider and sang about outsiders, Bowie is aware of how wrong society is in its attitude towards them. As an artist, he now sees his role as a mediator, a bridge between them.

Musically, Bowie's version is naturally inferior to Iggy's original, but it is still one of the more exciting tracks on the Tonight album. With big-sound eighties drums, a frantic synth, breathless vocals and some genuinely rocking guitar licks, it keeps a little kindle of rebellious rock alive.

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