His Burning Eye

Crash Course for the Ravers
Album: Lodger, 1979
Prior Level of Acquaintance: Minimal
Three-Word Review: Spiky, complicated, defiant


So what do I write after having ‘Yassassin’ stuck in my head for a week straight? The commentators suggest that Lodger is both underrated and imperfect. I enjoyed spending time with it more than I did with “Heroes,” which is not to make any case that it’s better – rather that Lodger’s crowded storage bin of styles and layers suited my mood more than the carefully crafted shoutfest on the prior album. ‘Yassassin,’ after all, is imitation-Turkish frosting smeared onto an imitation-Jamaican cake, a level of fusion never dared by restaurants.

Bowie had been making music videos for more than a decade by Lodger, but I’m told that the very late 70s are when the genre came into its own. (MTV would be founded in 1981.) I haven’t yet seen many of his videos between 1979 and the current decade, but having obsessively watched those from The Next Day, I see a certain continuity dating from the Lodger videos. It may have something to do with Bowie’s eerie resemblance, in ‘DJ’ and ‘Look Back in Anger,’ to Tilda Swinton, which of course they’ll exploit in the Next Day promo period. And I don’t even mean his self-made backing girl group in ‘Boys Keep Swinging,’ where I don’t know whether to guffaw or read Judith Butler.

That thing with the Venetian blinds!

This week of Lodger earworms coincided with the Internet’s collective upheaval at the sentencing, or lack thereof, of Brock Turner, the Stanford rapist. (Here’s just one of the infinite righteously indignant stories and op-eds, because it extends my baking metaphor.) I have nothing to add to the “fuckshit souffle” of the criminal case and can’t better the many statements of solidarity with the victim. But it did throw a certain light on David Bowie’s song ‘Repetition.’

I wasn’t expecting ‘Repetition.’ I figured I had the album down by then: lots of mixed rhythms and instrumental bits with travel imagery. Then he sang,

Well Johnny is a man
And he’s bigger than her
I guess the bruises won’t show
If she wears long sleeves

and I went shit, this is a story about domestic violence – and because the title doesn’t refer to the song’s structure, it must suggest that this happens all the time – which, of course, it does.

Don’t know why the story about Johnny and Ann and the nameless wife was in Bowie’s head during Lodger’s creation. There’s plenty of preceding popular music with domestic-violence themes, but most of it is uncritical. (Just two hit examples: the Beatles’ ‘Run for Your Life,’ the Stones’ ‘Under My Thumb.’) John Lennon made a gesture toward apology for it all with 1972’s ‘Woman Is the Nigger of the World,’ but that’s a much more generic and preachy and generally less successful song than the tiny awful world of ‘Repetition.’ Furthermore, Bowie had roughly zero cred for feminism in that decade. It looks like he got interested in Mutually Assured Destruction for a few minutes and wrote ‘Fantastic Voyage,’ and he got interested in domestic violence for a different few minutes and wrote ‘Repetition.’

And then I noticed the proximity on the album of ‘Repetition’ and ‘Boys Keep Swinging.’ I’d taken swinging to mean something like dancing/partying + messing with your gender and sexual orientation – an interpretation bolstered by the video. But, of course, one can also swing one’s fists, or a baseball bat, and ‘when you’re a boy,’ you’re encouraged by our general culture to do so without regard for the impact. But it’s OK: “Boys always work it out.”

Next: Before diving deep into Scary Monsters…And Super Creeps, a digression through other Bowie activies and influences at the turn of the 1980s – including a visit to one of my very favorite famous/little-known historical figures.

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