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The Enigma Of Bowie’s Perspective, His Greatest Puzzle by Alex Lyons

August 1st, 2015 | by admin
The Enigma Of Bowie’s Perspective, His Greatest Puzzle by Alex Lyons

The Enigma Of Bowie’s Perspective, His Greatest Puzzle by Alex Lyons…

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Literature concerning David Bowie, be it articles, reviews, or biographies, can sometimes focus too strongly on his chameleonic qualities. His constructions of personality can often cloud our judgement of the man himself, who remains mostly intact behind a revolving-door of shape-shifting.


A question I often find myself asking is – is this a man looking inwards or outwards? Do his lyrics represent an obsession with the world around him, or act as a barrier to understanding himself as an individual? Can we really know Bowie?



alex 2The Man Who Sold The World


Bowie’s skill in perceiving the culturally relevant is unmatched, his 1977 album ‘Heroes’ went as far as to express the zeitgeist of the Cold War. Through earlier songs like ‘Changes’ and ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ he vividly described societal and stylistic change, only briefly alluding to how he too is subject to these developments. ‘Life On Mars’ and ‘Fashion’ also concern innovations in trends and media, critical and distrusting of their bearing. These views can lead to visions of doom explored in ‘Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)’, in which frivolous and decadent society is condemned. Sometimes this commentary focuses on less overtly apocalyptic themes, such as the examination of modern paranoia in ‘1984’ or ‘Big Brother’ on the ‘Diamond Dogs’ album. Nevertheless, Bowie champions those who capture the cultural ambience, taking the song ‘Andy Warhol’ as a key example, while his inner feelings often result in the sardonic critique of these iconoclasts. Side B of ‘Lodger’ denounces failures of Western society, while ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’ berates the cultural homogenisation that he began to see around him. Bowie, as a highly descriptive lyricist, often writes in a journalistic manner. This is displayed on songs like ‘Panic In Detroit’, chronicling the 1967 Detroit riots, as well as ‘Young Americans’, in which Bowie juxtaposes the hope, sexuality, and subsequent shattered dreams of many misled American Youth. Bowie touches on issues that are left unturned by other artists, the Bowie-penned Mott the Hoople hit ‘All The Young Dudes’ is a solemn contemplation on youth suicide. However it is when Bowie champions social causes that he most effectively stares into the snowglobe and returns with observations. The playful androgyny of ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ makes traditional gender roles seem completely ridiculous, while the female monologue on ‘It’s No Game (Part 1)’ empowers female voices in Rock music. Bowie is similarly successful in advocating for women’s rights in the song ‘Suffragette City’, at the very least he taught many what the word suffragette means. This instinct did not wane later in his career, with ‘Loving The Alien’ ruminating on the pointlessness of conflict arising from religious difference and ‘Time Will Crawl’ contemplating the destruction of the planet at the hands of human consumption.



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Although a masterful observer and spokesman for the world around him, he appears to have more difficulty in expressing his personal feelings. Bowie does reveal them directly on occasion, although sometimes obscuring them to complicate interpretation. However, when he feels the need, he is often successful at looking inwards. Usually these lyrics will originate from a place of anguish or emotional confusion.


An early example of this inner conflict is in the title track of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, by encountering a doppelganger in a bizarre episode Bowie gives us a clue at the beginning of his career that he is wrangling with the exploration of himself. He also opens up romantically on many tracks, ‘Letter To Hermione’ directly addresses a previous girlfriend, Hermione Farthingale, in an ode to love lost. Similarly, songs such as ‘Golden Years’ and ‘Be My Wife’ desperately try to claw at the remnants of love between himself and ex-wife Angie Bowie. ‘The Bewlay Brothers’ sees Bowie cryptically addressing his half-brother Terry, the largely impenetrable lyrics that Bowie described as a ‘palimpsest’ serve as a dedication to his brother’s schizophrenia. Bowie also acknowledged his battles with addiction through Berlin-era records such as ‘Breaking Glass’, ‘Always Crashing In The Same Car’, ‘Joe The Lion’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’, in which he laments buried demons. Furthermore, soul-tinged songs such as ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’ and ‘Word On A Wing’ cry out for redemption and spiritual rebirth. Interestingly, some of Bowie’s most introspective songs lack lyrics or banish them to the background as if uncommunicable. ‘Sound and Vision’ contains some of Bowie’s greatest questions and poetically emotional lyrics, while the withdrawn delivery gives them more fragility and weight. In the same way, ‘A New Career In A New Town’ is fiercely autobiographical given Bowie’s momentous move to Berlin, and it contains no lyrics whatsoever.



Bowie is a great thinker, and therefore his songs reflect a great deal of research and knowledge. That said, he does not over-theorise, he has a sense for making statements about the world around him and pairing them with the appropriate avant-garde aesthetics. This is perhaps the reason listeners seldom get the opportunity see him bare, for Bowie there is simply too much to observe in the outside world.


The narrative thread that most aptly portrays the interplay between Bowie’s personal and external world concerns Major Tom. In ‘Space Oddity’ he is a fictional astronaut who plunges the depths of space to simultaneously explore the outside world and to delve into himself. Yet in ‘Ashes To Ashes’ he is depicted as a withdrawn junkie, along the lines of the introspection of ‘Low’ era Bowie. Although Bowie advertised the song as ‘an epitaph for the seventies’, the aged Major Tom becomes a mirror and a reference point for Bowie himself, a self-constructed figment of the external world that can come to represent his own life’s trajectory.


I’ve never done good things

I’ve never done bad things

I never did anything out of the blue


In 2013, when Bowie asked ‘Where Are We Now?’, I couldn’t help but feel glad that he was addressing himself.

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