In 1969 David Bowie caught his first big break when the release of Space Oddity coincided with the Apollo 11 space mission and subsequent moon landing. That event was greeted with worldwide celebration and optimism about our impending Utopian technofuture. What Bowie tapped into was the opposite of that, the creeping suspicion that all that technological innovation would bring nothing but sorrow. Every step of human progress, of course, has always been shadowed by the fear that technological dehumanization. The introduction of the printed word led to fierce debates about how all that pesky knowledge would cause widespread delinquency and endanger people’s souls by leading them away from God. Or whatever. The tech may change but the conversation is always the same: the availability of new gadgets will destroy human empathy, reasoning ability, social circles and fine motor skills, creating a society of mindless sad robot-people adrift with no sense of purpose or ability to form meaningful connections with one another. Space travel is that, placing quite literally alienated humans alone in an environment where they have no business ever existing. The image of the lone astronaut floating through the void has been as haunting and disturbing as the idea of colonizing new worlds is gung-ho and exciting. It also makes a powerful metaphor for the various alienations we experience in normal life; the office cubicle, the MRi machine, the commuter vehicle, the empty McMansion, the prison cell, the nuclear submarine – they’re all symbols of untethered lonely lives lived by people who might as well be in outer space.
The words ‘sound and vision’ became a little bit of a catchphrase for David Bowie in later years. They were the name of a comprehensive compilation and the tagline of a world tour. Because ‘sound’ plus ‘vision’ equals ‘visionary sound’ aka genius and the whole shebang. But at the time Low was being created, those things seemed more like, at the very least, uncomfortable burdens. This is the work of a man in the throes of cocaine-induced pseudo-schizophrenia. Bowie often said that he hadn’t been doing all that blow because it was fun; he did it because it allowed him to be inhumanly productive. In that context, the creativity of ‘sound and vision’ is more like an inner demon that had to be purged, or at least made peace with. But, much like Heroes, the works produced from dark lows come to be seen as triumphalist symbols of… not dying in the low, I guess.
The faster the years move forward, the closer we get to David Bowie’s prediction that we’ve got five years left to live. We may have 10 or 12 good ones left, but after that, the countdown’s on, and how we handle it up to us. Unfortunately, Ziggy Stardust has come, been and gone. Maybe there’s some other space messiah hovering in the sky with a message of sparkly, genderfluid free love. Okay, but I know that David Bowie was just writing a space opera to match his hair. He couldn’t have known that the doomsday alarms would actually be ringing by the end of his own lifetime. Unless. There’s a good solid one-third of me that wants to seriously believe in a space messiah from Mars. I mean, there’s a lot of dumb shit that people full-stop seriously believe in and build their entire lives around, and why can’t that thing, for me, be a David Bowie record?
David Bowie imagines himself as the world’s weirdest lounge act, complete with a satin suit, and campy covers of decade-old pop hits. It felt like quite a novelty and it still does. There’s some suspension of disbelief required, watching a vermilion-haired alien croon about chasing some Earth-dame as if this rock messiah would stoop to the childish dating rituals the original McCoys song was referring to. Tongue-entirely-in-cheek of course.
David Bowie has a real quarrel with the straight world and the briefcase-carrying types who populate it. It’s not just David Bowie, of course. Artists and musicians and assorted Bohemians have mocked the conventional life in a trope as age-old as dogs chasing cats. It’s a real tragedy that so many people remain locked in a life of silent conformity, and the probability that most of them are perfectly content with it just adds to the pathos. In David Bowie’s eyes, it’s also symptomatic that we’re all living in some kind of an Orwellian regime that actively punishes free thought and self-expression, which is just… reality. George Orwell, for his part, may have added one or two science-fiction-ish flourishes to his world, but mostly he was just describing the perfectly real. So we’re all children of the silent age, aren’t we though?
David Bowie describing Bob Dylan as “a strange young man […] with a voice like sand and glue” is the most accurate thing ever. It’s an homage, a parody and a challenge all at once. Bowie does an alright job mimicking Dylan’s cadences, and his gnomic stream-of-dream writing. Of course, Bowie’s own wordiness has always had a direct debt to Dylan, which only had to be acknowledged. But it was also a definite poke at Dylan’s rock god status. By 1971, Dylan was just not as cool – or as productive – as he had been in the 60’s. The poet’s glow had faded somewhat, and his records weren’t being read as some kind of counter-cultural scriptures anymore. David Bowie saw it as “a void of leadership” and he had big plans for filling that void. If Bob Dylan had semi-reluctantly been the voice of his generation for the kids of the 60’s, David Bowie would be the rock messiah for the 70’s. It was an arrogant statement of ambition that could only be made by someone with a busload of faith in himself. Someone with a bit of a messiah complex, in other words.
Political commentary was never David Bowie’s wheelhouse, and when he goes there it tends to feel half-baked. Here, he’s into some loose concept of the manifest destiny of charismatic leaders, who are not dissimilar from rock stars in their larger-than-life appearance. It was a theme he was about to get into more deeply, having read a few too many books about the rise of fascism, before realizing that it’s not a fun or a healthy fascination, especially for a mentally unstable person. I’ve always thought that, lyrically at least, this was the weakest track from Young Americans. On the other hand, though, it’s the one that comes closest to capturing some real soul, as opposed to the plastic kind. That’s thanks, of course, to the vocal support of the then-obscure Luther Vandross, who completely oversteps his position as a backup singer to outshine his boss.