Graded on a Curve:
David Bowie,
Let’s Dance

In today’s Philosophy 101 class, we will discuss what is commonly referred to as “existential nausea.” The slippery frog-eyed philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, who came up with all this existentialist malarkey in the first place, wrote, “Existential nausea arises from the sudden awareness of life’s meaninglessness, generally arising from hearing David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” on the car radio. This queasy sensation of deep inner disgust is also a frequent accompaniment to exposure, no matter how brief in duration, to the Bowie smash hit “Modern Love.”

I love David Bowie. Would gladly lick the heels of his Ziggy boots, wherever they are. But on 1983’s Let’s Dance Bowie and partner in crime Nile Rodgers lost the thread, went off the reservation, and—how can I put this most brutally?—sold out, and in so doing hocked Bowie’s artistic reputation as casually as one might sell a long-ignored action figure at a lawn sale.

I am well aware that plenty of people disagree. They like the singles “Let’s Dance” and “Modern Love.” Your sensible soul will point out that Mr. Bowie was simply trying to reach a wider audience, and said sensible soul is undeniably right. But there is tailoring and there is pandering. By aping the MTV sound and altering both look and music to fit the tastes of as wide an audience as humanly possible, Bowie, the guy who brought us “Changes,” was pandering. Why, the man himself said as much, by describing the Let’s Dance period as his “Phil Collins years.”

Many a year has passed since 1983, but I still find myself engaged in vicious combat with the LP’s fans and defenders. At the time of the LP’s release I was definitely suffering from nausea, but not of the existential type. “Let’s Dance” and “Modern Love” didn’t just nauseate me; they made me want to projectile vomit. I screamed every time I heard—and I heard it a lot as it could not be avoided—Bowie sing, “Put on your red shoes and dance the blues.” Gak! It was his worst line since, “Time took a cigarette/And put it in your mouth.” That said, the difference between the two bad lines was crucial, in so far as I liked “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide” and found “Let’s Dance” repugnant.

What most offended me was the LP’s sound. Bowie was always at the cutting edge of or ahead of his time. On Let’s Dance not only was he not ahead of his time, he sounded like he was trying to catch up. He sounded winded, to the extent that the best he could do was ape his contemporaries. Which was fine, if you were a fan of Wham! or Duran Duran. Producer Nile Rodgers was part of the problem. He was an excellent producer, but he was not a visionary producer. He knew what was happening, whereas somebody like Brian Eno knew what could be happening. The distinction was fatal in the case of Let’s Dance.

To be honest, I never sat down and listened to Let’s Dance until now. “Let’s Dance” and “Modern Love” vexed me too much. And now that I’ve listened to the LP, I am here to tell you that my suspicion that Let’s Dance reeked like a dead carp wearing a Limburger cheese suit and shoes made from dog shit was correct. “Without You” is a lame Roxy Music rip, “Ricochet” is almost listenable but nothing to get excited about, and “Criminal World” is every bit a creature of its lamentable age as “Let’s Dance” and “Modern Love.” I can actually hear Phil Collins singing “Criminal World,” which is redeemed only by Stevie Ray Vaughn’s guitar solo. And I’ll take Mick Ronson over the late Stevie Ray any day. As for “Shake It” it’s unspeakable, from the backing singers to that horrible ’80s thump thump thump to the kinds of keyboard twitches that everybody with a video on MTV was abusing at the time.

Let’s Dance does have two listenable tracks. Both Bowie and Iggy Pop released versions of “China Girl.” Bowie’s take is crisper, brighter, and more “soulful” than Iggy Pop’s version. And Bowie is in rare form when he delivers the apocalyptic lines, “I stumble into town/Just like a sacred cow/Visions of swastikas in my head/Plans for everyone.” But Iggy, while no crooner, sounds more tortured; it’s as if the words are being delivered straight from the darkness of his tormented heart. And while Bowie’s version boasts some stellar guitar work by Vaughn, I prefer the sludgy horn, guitar, and ticky-tacky ending of Pop’s take. Besides, like I already said—I’m a Ronson man.

Meanwhile, “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” actually sets off sparks, and reminds me of the Bowie of yore. Great lyrics, a beat that doesn’t sound like the beat everyone was jumping around to at the time, and some wicked guitar wank by Vaughn all make this one a song I would actually want on a best of compilation. “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” doesn’t sound like it was cut to the dimensions of one size fits all, and that makes it the only saving grace on an otherwise deplorable LP.

With Let’s Dance the man who sold the world sold his soul, and for what? A fleeting moment of commercial success that was followed—for the Gods have their way of punishing panderers—not by further sales glory, but rather by a long plummet into pop irrelevance. Bowie himself put it best, saying that, “Let’s Dance put me in a real corner in that it fucked with my integrity,” before adding that it was a “beast” he could not escape. I, for one, don’t think the true cost of this LP to David Bowie, artist, has ever been reckoned. I do know that it disabused long-time Bowie fanatics like yours truly in a way that none of his former “changes” ever could. Everybody knew that Bowie was plastic; it was part of his charm. But Let’s Dance wasn’t just plastic, it was toxic, and should have been promptly recalled, before “Modern Love” went airborne.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
D+

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