“Young Americans” and disillusionment therewith

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Young Americans album cover, 1975

Yay, here we are again. Late again. Let’s call these “roughly monthly” posts instead of strictly monthly, shall we? 🙂
“Young Americans” is an album that excites me, fascinates me, and perplexes me. It is near and dear to my heart— as is practically every Bowie album, but this time I really really mean it. I can use most of Bowie’s work to kind of frame my life from the time I started listening to him seriously, and “Young Americans” is no exception.
I’ve almost always listened to Bowie’s work in chronological order. I find that as I grow and mature, I appreciate the later works more and more. Back in 2010, I was an alcoholic mess, active in my eating disorder, lost and disenfranchised, living in Richmond, Virginia. I was already deeply in love with the earlier volumes of Bowie’s oeuvre, but even our most-beloved music gets to a point where it needs a break. Luckily, MP3s don’t wear down the way records did or I would have destroyed “Hunky Dory” through “Diamond Dogs” by then. I was comfortable with these albums, but, one day, feeling adventurous, I loaded “Young Americans” on my MP3 player and went for a long, long walk (punishing my body so that I could “afford” calories later for alcohol, natch).
I hated it.
Well, maybe “hated” is too strong a word. But it was a such departure from the rest of the albums I knew and loved, that I couldn’t get my head around it. It was pure soul (”plastic soul,” as he called it). The sax solos (which now make my heart race with delight) sounded tinny and dissonant to me. They reminded me of watching “Full House” as a kid and it depressed me because I had spent many years in front of the TV (in lieu of being parented by humans, but that’s a whole other blog, probably) and I didn’t want to be reminded of that time. In fact, that’s what I was running from in my addiction— partially, anyway. Addiction is always more complex than that. I couldn’t handle it. I reverted back to “Diamond Dogs” and prior for the next several years, only occasionally hazarding an album outside of that period, until about March of 2015.
Kind of ironic, to me, that the music Bowie created in the depths of his addiction didn’t resonate with me until about five years later, when I was clean and sober. I became obsessed (like ya do), and listened to almost nothing else, musically, for almost a year.

Thematically, I think this album is the most emotionally honest since “Hunky Dory.” There’s no flights of fancy here, my friends, no traversing the depths of the occult, no dystopian future visions, no spacemen. Just a man shattered by cocaine and life and the music industry, and his musical genius. I think there’s a kind of emotional rawness to it that reminds me of “Space Oddity”, but this time round it’s more polished in its presentation, and more sophisticated, seasoned, as it were, by experience. The songs are about love and life and being a star, and they take you on a ride. “Young Americans” is a fascinating meditation on Bowie’s observations of America; “Win” is an achingly beautiful love song; and, if you’ve listened to the extended album like I have, you’ll know that “It’s Gonna Be Me” is an epic ballad that will pretty much dissolve your panties and break your heart at the same time.
One of the most interesting cuts on the album, for me, is his cover of “Across the Universe.” Knowing what I do (or think I do) about where he was at the time in his life, I find this track strangely poignant. I’m not sure if it’s tragic or ironic that he says “Nothing’s gonna change my world” with such fervor (TBH he did everything with fervor tho) when he did, in fact, change quite a bit in the ensuing years. Just five years later he would be recovering from the addiction that allegedly ravaged his mind and body so badly that he hardly had any memory of the “Young Americans” or “Station to Station” sessions. If that’s not a change in one’s world, I don’t know what is. It makes me wonder whether it was a cry of hopelessness, or an affirmation that no matter what else happened, there was a perfect and immortal part of himself that would be retained, that the man knew who he was and stood by it throughout the storms of life.

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Fame, (fame) it’s mine, it’s mine, it’s just his line
To bind your time, it drives you to crime (fame)

Perhaps the two are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps it’s neither.
“Fame” is another interesting glimpse into Bowie’s world at the time (was this the world that wouldn’t be changed, I wonder?) He himself said in interviews that it was an angry song, which is easy to miss, I think, if you’re not really listening. Like so many of his other tracks, even well-known ones, the true essence of the song is easy to miss if you don’t look closely (”Young Americans”, for instance, is not the feel-good pop song that it sounds like— it’s actually a pretty biting social commentary if you look at the lyrics. Shit, the opening verse is about some guy ejaculating prematurely and not satisfying his girl, but she marries him anyway because That’s What Ya Do when you’re a Young American woman). “Fame” might have been written in anger, but it strikes me as sad. It’s a song about being trapped— what you need you have to borrow, what you get is no tomorrow, it drives you to crime. It’s a song about desperation, when, from the outside, I’m sure the life looks ideal. Right? Fame and fortune are part of the American fairy tale, which I think kind of ties back to the title track’s commentary. It’s an album, in part, about disillusionment with America, with stardom, with life in general. Also poignant, I think, is that the love songs remain tender, removed, I think, from the cynicism and disillusionment on the rest of the album.
Ironically, “Fame,” a song about Bowie’s disgruntlement and abuse by the recording industry, was among his first major hits in the United States.

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