In Hear This, The A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: We pay tribute to one of the greatest artists of all time, David Bowie.
There’s a lot to love about David Bowie’s “Young Americans,” but the highlight of highlights arrives around four minutes in. At the start, the band settles into a relaxed, polyrhythmic soul groove, while Bowie delivers his lyrics almost conversationally, describing a couple of kids fooling around in a car. Halfway through “Young Americans,” the singer zooms out, dropping a reference to Nixon and the economy. After a brief instrumental break, the vocals grow louder and more breathless, as the background singers—arranged by future star Luther Vandross—respond more frequently and more puckishly, even quoting The Beatles at one point. Then, abruptly, everything drops away, as producer Tony Visconti cranks up the rockabilly echo and Bowie croons, “Ain’t there one damn song that can make me… break down and cryyy-yyy?” Here the song fully announces itself as a grand piece of manufactured pop, not some off-the-cuff jam. That this happens during the most emotional line is a thrilling bit of rug-pulling—and maybe a direct jab at the cadres of Bowie skeptics who persistently doubted his sincerity.
A lot of American rock critics in the 1970s didn’t trust David Bowie. They acknowledged his talent, and respected his hits, but didn’t dig the theatrics or the post-modernism. They wondered if they were being conned. Anyone with Bowie’s facility with melodies, lyrics, and personae could’ve been secretly smirking if anyone dared take him at face value. Plus, when he deigned to give interviews, Bowie spoke about his work with a certain intellectual distance that encouraged wariness. And so some writers cocked their eyebrows and let it be known that they weren’t going to get suckered. That’s how they missed the boat on Young Americans: one of Bowie’s purely enjoyable albums (and not coincidentally one of his most commercially successful). Robert Christgau dubbed it “a failure.” Lester Bangs liked the record, but only because he generally found Bowie to be “bullshit.” Some of the most influential rock writers of 1975 begrudgingly praised the title track, but shrugged off the LP as a whole, due to circumstances that become increasingly irrelevant with each passing year.
Circumstance #1: Bowie’s relatively weak previous three albums (the 1973 covers collection Pin Ups, 1974’s hard rock science-fiction exercise Diamond Dogs, and the widely reviled concert document David Live) seemed to indicate the artist was tiring. Circumstance #2: Bowie changed his hairstyle and clothes prior to the release of Young Americans, leading some to presume that he was just adopting a self-consciously shallow new character—a misperception the singer encouraged when he described his new sound as “plastic soul.” Circumstance #3: Bowie was expressly experimenting with a Philadelphia-rooted R&B sound, which was questionable in part because of his blinding whiteness and in part because the Philly scene itself was regarded in some quarters as too slick and disco-fied.
Who cares about any of that now? It’s not that Young Americans is a perfect album, by any means. Bowie’s cover of The Beatles’ “Across The Universe” is a bust; and after so many years of restless experimentation (with even more around the corner), the music on this record represents a dramatically lower degree of difficulty. But the ease of songs like “Win” and “Right” becomes more enjoyable with each passing year, as the styles they borrow recede into the distance.
Plus, as Bowie did so often in the 1970s, he anchored the record with a single so magnificent it was almost inexplicable. There’s just no reason for “Young Americans” to be as fantastic as it is. Nothing else on Young Americans is as richly detailed or fully realized—not even the record’s bigger hit, “Fame.” And while the lyrics seem meaningful, they’re actually fairly stream-of-consciousness, akin to the cut-ups that would dominate the next year’s Bowie masterpiece Station To Station. It’s hard to call this song purposeful, per se. It’s more like it just… appeared. “Young Americans” resists being picked apart, because it sounds enchanted—as though it were conjured into existence, by one of rock’s most mysterious magicians.