Monday, 12 May 2014

"Young Americans" is the most cynical song of the '70s

David Bowie has long been described by the media as a chameleon of sorts, someone who picks up on social and cultural trends, takes them to their logical extreme, and casts them aside soon after, on to the next thing. While I agree that Bowie is certainly always in tune with  the cultural zeitgeist, I disagree with the idea that his many personas represent a wish to emulate the zeitgeist- rather, I'd argue, his many different public identities come from an intent to parody and comment on whatever trend du jour he happened to find worthy of discussion.

Now Bowie is well known for his gender bending which was obviously intended as  his commentary on the constructed social structures placed around male and female identities. But what I think is rarely discussed is his brilliant commentary on race, colonialism and cultural theft.  this was something explored throughout the "plastic soul" era of his career and most explicitly on Young Americans, both the song and album.

As a Brit who was heavily influenced by American culture, Bowie wrote "Young Americans" as an expression of his distaste with the racial climate in the USA at the time. Stylistically, the song is an up-tempo number in black American soul/R&B style but unlike his contemporaries, Bowie didn't just borrow the musical style for aesthetic purposes. It's intended as a reflection on the cultural theft that he talks about in the song. Quite clever really as at first listen it sounds like another blue-eyed soul number, but the lyrics belie a criticism of "blue-eyed soul" and the willingness of white people to steal from and exploit black culture while still harbouring racist attitudes.

Have you been the un-American?
Just you and your idol sing falsetto
'bout Leather, leather everywhere, and
Not a myth left from the ghetto
Well, well, well, would you carry a razor
In case, just in case of depression?
Sit on your hands on a bus of survivors
Blushing at all the afro-Sheeners

These lyrics express Bowie's feelings about the cultural climate of the 1970s in regards to race relations, and basically what he's saying here is that white (especially male) Americans consider themselves the "default" American, and, as it has been said before "everyone else gets a hypen". Now Bowie is a white male and I am a white female so I don't want to imply that either he or I are the foremost experts on race relations. What I mean to say is that the song is intended as a message to Bowie's white contemporaries. Black music was (and still is!) being imitated by white singers and white bands who were happy to take the fun parts of black culture but refused to engage in any political discourse about race relations or acknowledge the disparity between the recognition they got and the recognition black artists got. "Not a myth left from the ghetto" may be referencing the fact that black culture and black stories were mined by white people for artistic inspiration until we (white people) saw the well as being run dry. Not a myth left because we stole everything.

Performing on the Dick Cavett Show, December 1974


Black music and black fashion are things that we white people are happy to steal but still see as threatening in their original form, so they have to be watered down. Bowie is asking his audience why they are happy to take from black culture without ever really knowing the black experience.  He asks his audience, "You may enjoy the music, but do you understand where it comes from culturally and emotionally?"  At this point I have to state: no. I do not understand the experience because I have never lived it. I'm just a white lady from rural Canada and I'm in no way attempting to speak for black people with my commentary on this song. I think it's telling though that most of the musicians featured on this song are black, including of course Luther Vandross, who played a big part in arranging the song. Bowie, a white man, is singing it, and I think it's very sneaky how he gets his message across, because he knows that many of his listeners will only listen to funk/soul/R&B music if it's played by a white man like him, so he emulates the style perfectly but makes his lyrics very cynical and accusatory, so that  the listeners are initially hooked by the melody and style, get into the song, and then somewhere around the middle, realize that the very song they are in enjoying is decrying people like them (people like us, rather).

I think there's also some interesting commentary here on gender, too: the lyric "ain't there a woman I can sock on the jaw" references domestic violence obviously, but it's not an autobiographical lyric, it's a narrative "voice" Bowie uses to illustrate the hypocrisy of the ~enlightened~ '70s man. He loves the fact that the sexual revolution has freed women to engage in no-strings-attached sex, but he is angry at the fact that the women's lib movement has offered them other sorts of autonomy. He longs for an old-fashioned woman he could own and abuse rather than the Modern Woman who asks that a man be accountable for his actions.  

Basically, this song is about the hypocrisy of the 1970s youth: pretending to be so much more open-minded than their predecessors, but still harbouring racist and sexist ideals, just expressing them in a different way, perhaps a more insidious way.

That being said, although Bowie's a brilliant songwriter, the song shouldn't be taken as the last word on race relations: he is after all, still a white man from Britain. I do think though that we white people can learn something from it since we still persist in copying and stealing from black culture. The fact that this song is performed in a funk/soul style is the cleverest thing about it as it allows the narrator (Bowie) to address the issue from within the cultural arena in which it exists. Bowie's always played with personas, image and identity, and although I think he feels free to adopt personas that are based on some aspect of his personality, "Young Americans" is his protest against those who base their image or identity or sound or look on something that is not a part of their life and never will be, something that they will never know or understand. 

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