Listening to Bowie: the playful dichotomies

David Bowie keeps getting more and more interesting. Never mind that he died on January 10 this year. Good works don’t die, and death doesn’t seem to have done anything to dull the luster of his songs. If literary immortality means achieving the kind of life now shared by the likes of Dante Alighieri and William Blake, Bowie might be somewhere in heaven. Time will tell. But my guess is that readers and listeners will keep coming back to Bowie to get what we get when we read a great poem, play, or story. What makes him so darn interesting? A thousand things. But in this two-part blog I will focus on just two. This brief section will focus on one feature of his songs on the latest Blackstar album, and next week’s post will explore the thematic connection between Bowie and Lucifer. Yes, that Lucifer.

One aspect of Bowie’s Blackstar songs works like an intellectual teaser: his playing with dichotomies. Before I get into the lyrics, I’d like to cite an example of this kind of writing in another songwriter. Here are a few lines from Bob Dylan’s Idiot Wind (1974):

What’s good is bad, what’s bad is good/ You’ll find out when you reach the top, you’re on the bottom

I bet Bowie would love those lines. Everybody thinks they know what “good” and “bad” mean, and the same with “top” and “bottom”. But the singer has news for you. The effect of playing with these dichotomies is to invite interpretation. When we ask, “What does it mean?”, we have started the journey. Is the song about fame, gender identity, or perhaps some kind of spiritual awareness? The artist’s job, when making good works, is to keep the reader/listener coming back for more. Some people claim that the real meaning of Bowie’s lyrics is meaninglessness, but that seems like a cul-de-sac to me. A dead and deadening destination. In that case, no one would keep coming back for more.

The final song on Blackstar, I Can’t Give Everything Away, seems to invite the interpretation of meaninglessness. Here is the relevant verse:

Seeing more and feeling less
Saying no but meaning yes
This is all I ever meant
That’s the message that I sent

One is tempted to conclude, “There you go, he said it: his lyrics don’t mean anything.” But is that what the verse means? Isn’t it an ironic play on the dichotomies yes/no, more/less, saying/meaning? Seeing meaninglessness here is to err as a result of being hasty. It makes me think of the line from French author Andre’ Gide: “Please do not understand me too quickly.”

To point out an obvious fact, song verses are not built like rational arguments. So conclusions have to be put on hold, perhaps indefinitely. What does Blake’s “Tyger” mean? Or, in another Blake poem, what is “the invisible worm/ That flies in the night/ in the howling storm”? Who is to say a poem, or story, or song, should have one, and just one, meaning?

In the limited space I have left, I’d like to look at another song off Blackstar that plays with dichotomies and seems to lure us into interpretation. This verse comes from the title song which is represented as a non-verbal symbol, Blackstar:

I can’t answer why (I’m not a gangstar)
But I can tell you how (I’m not a film star)
We were born upside-down (I’m a star’s star)
Born the wrong way ‘round (I’m not a white star)

What does it mean to be “born upside-down” and “the wrong way ’round”? It’s suggestive on multiple levels, but one message I see in it relates to conventional thinking. Just as in Dylan’s “what’s good is bad, what’s bad is good”, the singer is inviting us to think again (about anything and everything), be open to truths we might reject at first glance, and harness the energy that comes with kicking against the pricks. As with much of Bowie, I can’t tell what the verse means, but I know what it suggests.


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