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A look at David Bowie’s plastic soul in 'Young Americans'

America supplied a need in me. It became a myth land.” – David Bowie

David Bowie’s true genius was his ability to create characters whose genetic make-up embraced all aspects of the human condition — positive and negative. As a result, critics were never able to create a caricature of him because, in reality, he had already done so. This is probably the key ingredient, to not only the longevity of his career, but also to the sheer amount of authenticity he was able to maintain for so many years. While Ziggy Stardust, as a character, was more of a powerful statement that initially had a certain novelty to it, one which took the world by complete surprise, Bowie never let this character define him and especially his career. 

However, even with that said, Ziggy Stardust may have come the closest to doing so. As Bowie once wily claimed, “I got lost at one point…I couldn’t decide whether I was writing characters or whether the characters were writing me.” Glam rock was undoubtedly closer to Bowie’s natural habitat, it seemed. In other words, glam rock was exclusively a British kind of music, so Bowie and the Spiders from Mars were able to pull off and, indeed, invent it, even. While all that remains the case with Ziggy, Bowie’s Young Americans phase remains his most ambitious period of time, simply because of the feat he pulled off…but more on that later.

Bowie called this period of time his ‘Plastic Soul’ phase. While it does resemble the Thin White Duke character found on the 1976 album Station to Stationit was not quite that, just yet. The Thin White Duke possessed a kind of European nationalist quality to him at times, one that even bordered on fascism. Plastic Soul Bowie, while beginning to take the shape of the Thin White Duke, was less sinister, more idealistically naive and hopeful for the prospects of America and all it had to offer. During the mid-1970s, Black soul and funk music began to dominate the major charts. Glam rock was dying, and before the critics got to accuse Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust of overstaying his welcome, he killed him off at The Hammersmith Odeon.

His next album would be Diamond Dogs, a dystopian vision inspired by Clockwork Orange and William Burroughs, which on the album cover featured Bowie, portrayed as half-dog half-Bowie. A new character surfaced for a brief minute, one that perhaps could be described as mid-transformation from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke; Halloween Jack – a figure who would be Bowie’s way of saying goodbye to glam – had one foot out the proverbial glam door and another in an uncertain future. While this uncertainty permeated Bowie’s life, Diamond Dogs was only slightly ambiguous, with most songs still containing a slight glam edge, with two new tracks of which its identities lie more in soul and funk. One of which is titled ‘1984′, and was supposed to be the title track of a more significant concept, turning George Orwell’s ‘1984’ into a dystopian musical. Orwell’s wife did not allow it. Bowie toured Diamond Dogs in 1974, and after a stop in Sigma Studios in Philadelphia, where soul and funk music was very much alive, decided to change the whole aesthetic and image of the stage set on the second leg of the tour, calling it the ‘Soul Tour’. It was now that Bowie was already planning his conquest of America.

After the tour was complete, Bowie set out to recruit new musicians and would assemble his band that would propel him to make some of his best records throughout the rest of the decade. The man who perhaps does not receive as much credit as he should, who helped Bowie make the leap to American soul music, was his rhythm guitar player and bandleader Carlos Alomar. Alomar was Bowie’s bridge to soul music, and he described Bowie as “the whitest man I’d ever seen – translucent white.” 

This brings us to Bowie’s most remarkable achievement that he ever pulled off. Bowie, as translucently white as Alomar noted, became one of the first white musicians to fully immerse himself into Black music. This would result in his seminal record Young Americans. At this point, Bowie’s next move was to conquer America. As if peering into the future – or just having been familiar with the nature of critics and the media – Bowie was wary of the backlash that this move may have had if it went wrong. This is the reason why Bowie called his take on Black soul and funk, ‘plastic’. He beat the critics to the punchline; he would acknowledge just how white he was, and make it understood that he was still, in essence, David Bowie. By doing so, Bowie was able to maintain complete integrity when making Young Americans. Music journalist, Simon Reynolds, wrote it spot on: “Young Americans was an immaculate facsimile of black US pop circa 1974-75. Bowie made strenuous attempts to do it right. But as if to pre-emptively deflect accusations of inauthenticity, Bowie called the sound’ plastic soul’.”

The term ‘plastic’ was not just used willy-nilly either; there was a specific vision involved when he created a plastic soul character out of himself. The goal behind creating Young Americans was two-fold. Firstly, he centred on American culture as a focal point as a way into the American market. Bowie once commented: “I thought I’d better make a hit album to cement myself in the States, so I went and did it.” Secondly, he wanted to present a sardonic sense of British irony when talking about American culture. Bowie’s ideas of America were taken just like every other aspiring British musician hoping to, one day, get to the States: through American popular culture (songs, films, TV). In this way, Young Americans was divorced from reality – it was a fantastical and over-idealised vision of America. Bowie called Young Americans “the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey.”

Everything that came with Bowie’s plastic soul character was premeditated – right down to his very drug addiction. He had an inkling that Los Angeles would drive him to insanity. “You can feel it in every avenue. It’s a kind of superficial calmness that they have developed to underplay the fact that there’s a lot of high pressure here,” Bowie commented on LA. As a method actor would, Bowie placed himself in the extremities he had to; he subsisted on a diet of red peppers, milk and cocaine; even from his use of cocaine, his voice began to change dramatically, especially when singing, his sound got raspier. 

Strangely enough, Bruce Springsteen was an important influence on Bowie during this period of his life. Enough so that Bowie, during the Young Americans sessions, attempted to record a cover of Springsteen’s song ‘It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City’. Ultimately The Boss rejected it. Bowie liked what Bruce Springsteen was about; his working-class, small-town aesthetic spoke to Bowie.

Another famous figure who influenced Bowie, perhaps in a much needed, older brother kind of way, was John Lennon, and they collaborated on one of the singles for the record, ‘Fame’. The track would remain Bowie’s biggest selling hit (ironically) until 1983’s ‘Let’s Dance’. ‘Fame’ was a meditation on the hollowness of extreme stardom. The style of the song perfectly mirrored the facade of fame: seemingly alluring and upbeat but quickly becomes apparent that it is, in fact, manic-inducing, repetitive, and of a schizophrenic nature. This is all amplified by the pitch shifter of one of the vocal tracks as well as the echo effect. Fame is the epitome of Young Americans within the scope of plastic soul. The track has energy and some danceability and certainly sounds like it belongs in its time. However, it is also a devastating imitation of the disco period – a hollowed-out soul, as if Bowie is mocking the times. As Bowie so aptly jested, “I wouldn’t inflict fame on my worst enemy.”

Young Americans would prove to be very successful in the States, reaching the top ten on the Billboard charts. Later in his career, David Bowie had mixed feelings about the record overall; however, the fact remains that one of the singles, and the title track, proved that Bowie’s plan worked. ‘Young Americans’ was a breakthrough for Bowie in the States, and the best thing of all, before his critics could understand exactly what he had done, he was already onto the next thing.

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