Most of the time, David Bowie and I just missed each other. On paper, we were highly compatible – he was, at least at one time, a gender-bending queer-as-fuck freak, fond of dissonant and jarring musical juxtapositions, smart and thoughtful and with just the right kind of dry wit about him. But for some reason, we always lacked a certain chemistry.
Part of it was just bad timing. I was late to the party, a little too young for his best material to make a formative impact. For many of my friends and lovers, Bowie was their first queer icon, a glittery life preserver when depression and conformity threatened to drag them down. But the first Bowie I encountered was the Bowie of Let's Dance, his biggest-selling album. His creaky voice and jaded posture on the single – and, perhaps, his blond good looks and white linen suit, too – turned me off. I liked him better as a vampire in The Hunger, when he let Bauhaus sing and instead concentrated on looking elegant and dangerous. Then, at least, I could see the appeal. Later I dug up his older material and understood his importance, but never on a visceral level. I admired his music but I didn't dig it.
That is, until I heard “Young Americans.” I am a complete sucker for this song.
Intellectually, I know why I love it. It's Bowie's definitive blue-eyed soul moment, right down to the backing vocals arranged by Luther Vandross and performed by Vandross and a chorus of black women. Bowie called his new style “plastic soul,” and it got him invited to be one of the first white performers on Soul Train, which is name-checked in the “Young Americans” lyrics. It also brought him one of his first U.S. hits, though “Fame” (from the same album) would chart higher.
Plus, the lyrics are meaty enough to keep my brain ticking, trying to puzzle them out. “Young Americans” juxtaposes America's romantic ideal of itself, attractive to Americans and non-Americans alike, with the more gritty reality of the mid-'70s: A disgraced president leaving office (two days before Bowie penned the lyrics), an oil crisis, fragile post-Civil-Rights-era race relations, bills to pay, a sense of faltering importance, a need to grow up. Everybody wants a young American, but the real young Americans can't quite seem to cope.
“Young Americans” also neatly captures a lot of white anxiety around cultural appropriation, down to Bowie's nervously propulsive vocal style. Bowie is simultaneously critiquing white musicians' appropriation of black soul sounds and indulging in his own impulse to nick it for himself. He's not, himself, American, but he's drawn to its icons and its imagery. He doesn't want to erase the cultures that inspire him, but the very act of homage might precipitate their displacement – white soul acts on the radio and MTV relegated black soul acts to the shadows once again. He recognizes his role and yet is unable to escape it – just like the young couple sketched out in the lyrics, drawn to each other, unable to leave, trying to pay the bills while looking for an escape. Even though you know it's stolen, empty, and a myth, you still want it. “I want what you want,” Bowie coos, “I want more.”
The reason “Young Americans” has become my earworm for mourning David Bowie, however, has little to do with my fondness for the song's style, its lyrical density, or its thematic material. It doesn't necessarily make sense as an epitaph, either – “Ashes to Ashes” or his elegant and haunting cover of Jacques Brel's “My Death” might be better.
“Young Americans” sprang to mind and stayed there simply because of the line Bowie borrowed from the Beatles for it. “I heard the news today / Oh, boy,” pretty much sums up the feeling of shock and surprise the announcement caused among my friends and colleagues.
The second part of the song with its breakdown in the middle, when the saxophone ceases to play, the backup singers go quiet, and Bowie pleads, “Ain't there one damn song that can make me break down and cry?” was another reason why I chose “Young Americans.” Anyone who's put a song (or an album, or a carefully curated playlist) on endless repeat and cried, alone or together with like-minded souls, until they were all cried out, knows exactly what Bowie's yearning for here. You don't need my permission, Bowie fans. It's okay to look to music for more than just a booty-shaking good time. It's okay to miss someone you never actually met. It's okay to cry.