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Divine Symmetry | 4 | Van Halen’s “Jump” and “Jump They Say”

Bowie’s album, Black Tie White Noise was released 30 years ago. I remember at the time passingly making a mental connection between his song, “Jump They Say” and Van Halen’s 1984 hit, “Jump.” In most respects they are very different songs, but in the spirit of this Divine Symmetry series, there might be some under-the surface connections.

To begin with, Van Halen’s album on which “Jump” appears is titled 1984, and the opening track is a synth-heavy instrumental of the same name. Much as Bowie would have been aware that Van Halen had a massive hit called “Jump,” Van Halen would have been aware that Bowie not only had a song called “1984,” but that it was off Diamond Dogs, an album partially inspired by George Orwell’s famous novel. Neither Bowie nor Orwell had providence over the year, let alone the number, but I hear Van Halen’s opening track as kind of a nod, at least to Bowie. Van Halen’s “1984” does not sound like Bowie’s “1984,” but it sounds like one of the instrumentals off “Heroes” or Low, or more specifically, it sounds like Bowie’s “Crystal Japan.” Bowie was not the first to use synthesizers, but he popularized their use. For a band more associated with the electric guitar than synthesizers, I almost get the sense that Van Halen wanted to get the acknowledgment out of the way that yes, Bowie did this first. I mean, listen to Van Halen’s “1984,” then listen to Bowie’s “Crystal Japan” and decide for yourself.

With that out of the way, “Jump” is next up on the album, and that song famously starts with, again, a synthesizer. Overall, “Jump” doesn’t sound like it would have been at home on a Bowie album. But in addition to its use of synthesizers, it also is also like a typical Bowie song in that its lyrics are somewhat ambiguous, more so than a typical Van Halen song.

I’ve poked around and read a little about what the song is about, but the lyrics are not self-explanatory: “might as well jump; go ahead and jump.” Why? Is this a good thing, or is the suggestion that whoever the song is directed at commit suicide? I don’t think so, but it’s hard (at least for me) not to associate the word “jump” with suicide. I think the implied meaning of this particular usage is something like, “go for it.” Might as well go for it. But it’s not clear.

Bowie’s use for the word in “Jump They Say” is also ambiguous, however I think it’s pretty clear that the suicide of his half brother was a partial inspiration for the song. The narrator of “Jump” is telling someone to jump, whatever that means, but Bowie is obviously saying that someone else is saying jump, and that someone is a crowd. I have always heard the song to be about resisting the pressure of the crowd. There’s no great mystery here— the two key lines are, “My friend don’t listen to the crowd; They say ‘jump.’”

I recently heard a podcast in which “Jump They Say” was discussed. The commentators focused in part on the closing lines, which come after the admonition not to listen to the crowd, “Got to believe somebody; got to believe.” They took this as an earnest admonition, and that the jump in question was like a leap of faith. Bowie’s video suggests suicide, not leap of faith, and the crowd is antagonistic, not something worthy of belief. But that makes the last two lines somewhat confusing. Is Bowie suggesting that these too are things that the crowd is saying? Are we supposed to remember what Bowie sang about belief in “Quicksand” (1971), “Don’t believe in yourself, don’t deceive with belief; Knowledge comes with death’s release”? Both songs place belief and the release of death close together. Knowing how Bowie liked to revisit themes, he probably did this on purpose.

Bowie iterates, throughout his song, what “they” say. And its a whole lot of nonsense— they say he has no brain, no mood, he was born again, he has two gods, he has no fear, he has no eyes, he has no mouth and so on. I think the collective impression is of gibbering, nonsensical gossip. Why would anyone follow an admonition coming from a group saying these things? Broadly, the crowd is commenting on someone’s competence and motives, then concluding that he (?) should jump. But the song’s narrator warns that, “he should watch his ass” and not listen to the crowd.

Van Halen’s song also surrounds its refrain, which concludes the opposite as Bowie, that “you might as well jump,” with what sounds like cacophony— “Ow, oh, hey, you; Who said that? Baby, how you been?” It’s like people talking past each other. Meanwhile, we’re repeatedly reminded that we see the narrator standing with his “back against the record machine,” and that he’s “not the worse that you’ve seen,” before we’re asked, “can’t you see what I mean?” Actually, I can’t. But that sort of fits with the idea that amidst confusion and clashing stimuli that you might as well go for it, whatever the it is. A fight, a pass, something else.

So where I’m coming down is that “Jump” and “Jump They Say” reach opposition verdicts— amidst confusion and talk, Van Halen says jump, but Bowie says, no.

There are a few other points of commonality between Van Halen and Bowie— both released pioneering videos at the dawn of the MTV era (Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” is the funnies video ever). Also, while Van Halen is generally not considered a glam band, look at how they dressed, at least at the time of “Jump.” I don’t think they would have been so attired a decade earlier, and Bowie at least partially paved the way for that.

I started this post by reflecting on how I initially thought of the Van Halen song when the Bowie song was released. I don’t think he was deliberately trying to evoke “Jump” in the same way he had to have been conjuring thoughts of the Elton John song, “Rocket Man,” with his 2013 song, “Like a Rocket Man.” But perhaps, on some level, he was returning Van Halen’s favor of acknowledging him back in 1984. Consciously or not, “Jump They Say” is a counterpoint.

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