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Concept Album Corner - 'Young Americans' by David Bowie
I mentioned back in my Pin Ups review by David Bowie that he initially had the idea of doing a companion album with Pin Ups, a cover album of British Invasion Era music that influenced him. The companion piece was to be titled “Bowie-ing Out” (not exactly a catchy title, is it?), a cover album of all of the American music that inspired Bowie. While he didn’t have the opportunity to go forward with this idea, his popularity in America had swollen into something astounding, helped in no small part by the epic tour show that promoted Diamond Dogs. To critics and music lovers everywhere at the time, even today, Bowie could do no wrong. He openly shows a fascination with American culture, particularly in Aladdin Sane. However, as Aladdin Sane was a touch more biting and cynical, Bowie’s next ‘concept album’ after Diamond Dogs embraces American culture with just as many kisses as it deals out bites.
I place ‘concept album’ in quotation marks as calling Young Americans such a thing is very much debatable. As the title suggests, the possible concept of the album is Bowie’s exploration and semi-lecture of the mindset and lifestyle of young Americans in the seventies. Some Bowie fans like myself who appreciate the intellectual side of his work and the deeper meanings behind his words are generally the ones who call this one a concept album, though the intention has never been stated by its creator. Still, he hasn’t denied it, so I’ll give myself a free pass on this one and call it a ‘concept album’ for today. Plus, while it might not be thematically a concept album, it was certainly a New Sound album for Bowie, experimenting and jamming not with punk or glam rock, but with “plastic soul”, a term used for black soul music that is made and sung by a white person.
Once again, I won’t go into detail song by song on this review, my major reason being that I don’t want to sound like a broken record, which is quite easy to do with this album. As a ‘New Sound’ album, the entire thing doesn’t show much other variety outside of plastic soul. Saxophone, tropical beats, bass lines, female back-up singers, alternating between mystical and misty to seedy and satirical, bringing to mind images of night clubs, dance and disco halls, electric ugly neon light shows, glittering bell bottoms and purple-furred pimp suits, star-shaped sunglasses, and erotic, sensual romance. The treatment is even given to his cover of the famous Beatles song ‘Across The Universe’, with tons of soul and blues poured into it, running over in a bubbly sky-blue wave. There may not be a lot of variety in the music, but the music that is given to us is good enough to fill an album. Bowie obviously shows a lot of love and respect for soul music and, as always, makes music that is not only listenable, but danceable. Some personal favorites are ‘Fascination’, ‘Across The Universe’ (with backing vocals by Lennon himself), ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’, and of course ‘Fame’, the number one hit off of the album that sounds like the soundtrack to a seventies adult movie.
Still, if we’re looking at this as a concept album, it’d probably be a good idea to explain what that concept is. As the title indicates, Young Americans could be about just that, a Bowie-style satire of the mindset and beliefs of Young Americans during the seventies in the same vein of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, which satirized the lifestyles of Bohemian youths in the 1920s. Bowie is at once sympathetic and fascinated with America yet also critical of it as the album states. The title track, ‘Young Americans’ addresses this cynicism in the most direct manner, referencing McCarthyism (Have you been an un-American?), black repression via Rosa Parks (Sit on your hands in a bus of survivors/Blushing at all the afro-Sheilas), and even Richard Nixon (We live for just these twenty years/Do we have to die for fifty more?). And still, the song works in a lyrically dissonant sense once more, the music sounding like a hot holiday groove. Could be that the Young Americans in question simply look at all these issues and maybe bat an eye to all of them? Perhaps the world looks at the Young Americans with envy (She wants the Young American), to be carefree and young and adventurous.
The other songs become much more sympathetic yet also caustic towards the attitudes of Young Americans. One of the tracks, ‘Win’, is a soft, airy number about competition and cooling down from it. ‘Fascination’ an upbeat funk tune on the devotion and lust that drives a Young American. I could go on and on, but I think my point is well made. As I’ve learned from writing these things for some time now, half the fun of discovering something new is taken away when somebody has to explain every little detail to you rather than letting you draw your own conclusions. Again, Bowie is a guy who prefers audience interpretation over artist’s intentions.
I always find it funny how Bowie went out of his way to experiment with a style of music that he’d never before tried his hand at and, really, never went back to again, at least not to the same degree as Young Americans. The entirety of the album could basically be one long soul song, as each track meshes together beautifully and seamlessly. The style is consistent and some of Bowie’s best dance music. Each song sounds as though it were designed for nothing more than making a hit on music charts, and it certainly succeeded. For the big Bowie nerds out there, to me, this makes a better Let’s Dance than the actual Let’s Dance album (the intention of which was to make hits and singles on the music charts). It’s a rarity of a Bowie album and unlike anything he’s really ever done, so take careful consideration when listening to it.