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Update: Song 293 | If You Can See Me

I was recently listening to Arsalan Mohammad‘s excellent podcast, Album to Album in which the host was discussing The Next Day with Leah Kardos, the musical theorist who wrote Blackstar Theory. You can listen to that podcast here. Kardos has certainly influenced my own thinking about Bowie and her book is thus far the best analysis of his music I have read.

I was especially taken by their discussion of the song, “If You Can See Me.” I’m not going to repeat what they say about the song, but their discussion inspired to me to both listen to the song again and look at the lyrics. I will say that they pointed put that the song was deliberately placed between two songs about guns, “Valentine’s Day,” which is about a mass shooter, and “I’d Rather Be High,” which is about war. They did not mention that “If you can see me, I can see you,” the song’s title and also hectoring refrain, is also a phrase associated with guns. If you can see the sniper, the sniper can see you. The narrator of this song is certainly violent, and though I don’t think the song is necessarily actually about a shooter, the implication was surely deliberate.

The song’s lyrics are almost stereotypical Bowie. They cannot be read to make literal sense. There is nonsense mixed in with oblique references, Pavlovian associations and thematic scene-setting. The result is ominous and seemingly about…something…but it’s hard to exactly pin down, which is the case with many of Bowie’s best songs.

Bowie rarely recycles words or phrases by accident. Twice he sings in this song, “ I could wear your new blue shoes; I should wear your old red dress.” To me, that’s evocative of the lines from “Let’s Dance,” “Put on your red shoes and dance the blues.” Kardos elsewhere points out how often Bowie mentioned the color blue in his songs, and while she doesn’t actually have a grand unifying theory as to why, it seems like something’s going on. The Next Day is one of Bowie’s most reflective and self-referential albums, and for some reason he’s trying to make a connection between this song and “Let’s Dance.”

“Let’s Dance” is also a phrase that can be associated with violence. I think the meaning of the phrase is usually taken at face value in the context of the song, but keep in mind Bowie appears on the album cover as a boxer. “Let’s Dance” is an invitation to fight. To confuse matters, Bowie appears on the cover to be shadow-boxing, suggesting that his opponent might just be himself.

Keep in mind too the lyric from “Teenage Wildlife” (which was released on the album immediately prior to Let’s Dance), “So you train by shadow boxing, search for the truth.” Also think of lines like, “So I turned myself to face me,” from “Changes, and “I ran across a monster who was sleeping by a tree; and I looked and frowned and the monster was me,” from “The Width of a Circle,” or the entirety of the song, “The Man Who Sold the World.” Bowie connects inner conflict with the search for truth.

Is the narrator of “If You Can See Me” talking to himself?

Still staying with the lines about the shoes and the dress— there’s a slightly subtle reference to cross dressing or gender ambiguity here. Whoever should wear “your old red dress” is either a male narrator proposing to wear an old red dress (and I do think it’s significant that the dress is old, which once again is evocative of Bowie’s past), or a female narrator being portrayed by a masculine-sounding Bowie. Or a person of ambiguous gender. One way or the other, Bowie’s narrator seems to be addressing a past version of Bowie.

And I think there’s still more just from these two lines— “new blue shoes” is evocative or “blue suede shoes.” The “blue suede shoes” from the song of the same name (no, not a Bowie song), are meant to evoke artifice. The singer of that song says, “you can do what you want, but don’t step on my blue suede shoes.” He goes through a list of attacks and insults that he can endure— just so long as his shoes remain untouched. Image is the most important thing. And, by the way, “Blue Suede Shoes” is another song that invites conflict. I mean, you’ve heard the song a million times— think about what the narrator is saying— “you can knock me down, step in my face; slander my name all over the place; do anything that you want to do; but uh-uh honey, lay off of my shoes.” Talk about “let’s dance!”

I promise I’m not going to do this for all the song’s lyrics, but I want to point out one other reference, in the lines, “So take this knife; and meet me across the river.” The line comes after Bowie’s second reference to the blue shoes and red dress. I had been thinking about writing a post about the meaning of rivers in Bowie’s songs. I was largely thinking of “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Rerpise)” and “Glass Spider”: and forgot the river reference here, but it is of a piece. Bowie associates rivers with death.

In the “Sweet Thing” sequence, Bowie sings, “We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band; then jump in the river holding hands.” He’s not proposing going for a nice swim. Similarly, he associates suicide with rivers in “Glass Spider,” with this almost hidden lyric— “If your mother don’t love you then the riverbed might.” It’s almost hidden in that the songs, at first, seems like a totally silly overwrought pop song. The casual listener isn’t going to digest the meaning of that line, but I don’t really see any other reasonable interpretation.

Add to these associations, Bowie connects the lines about the shoes and the dress with the lines about meeting across the river with a plan to, “walk to the crossroads.” Bowie mentions crossroads elsewhere, too, including, you guessed it— “Sweet Thing.” As the lyrics of the song degenerate from being an almost coherent but sad love-song narrative to a nonsensical lament, Bowie sings, “If this trade is a curse, then I’ll bless you; and turn to crossroads and hamburgers.” “Hamburgers?” There isn’t even consensus that that’s what he’s saying. I think, though, the point is that logic and coherence breaks down for the narrator under stress and the thereat of violence. All that’s long since been gone for the narrator of “If You Can See Me.”

Did Bowie mean for all this to be in the song? Yes. Though Bowie sometimes would famously insert nonsensical words or phrases into his songs, he never did that by accident, and certainly by 2013 he was very conscious of what he was doing and how fans would react.

And all that said— there’s much more to this song! Maybe I’ll write a part 2 at some point. But I think for the moment, I’ve given you enough to think about.

Here’s what I originally wrote on November 4, 2016:
How many Bowie songs have vaguely menacing but impenetrable lyrics?  By 2013 the answer was—not enough, so his comeback album includes this one which both fits nicely into his tradition but is nonetheless completely new.  My initial reaction to The Next Day was that it was the natural continuation of Reality, however I have since read a review of this song that makes the good point that is the next step in the evolutionary chain from Outside.  Yes, that’s right—it would fit well on Outside (which was supposed to have a sequel anyway), or even Earthling.  Three years later, the Next Day, plus its addendum, The Next Day Extra (which is an entire album of new music) seems more like a grab bag of almost random songs than a coherent statement.  That’s OK—he had obviously been building up a decade’s worth of ideas.  I got the impression he wanted to spew them out then pick up where he left off a decade earlier with building an album at a time every two years or so.  Sadly he was only able to do this one more time.  Album: The Next Day

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