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Is “Up the Hill Backwards” the Secret to the Meaning of Life?

I’m reading a book about my favorite album, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). Its called Silhouettes and Shadows, by Adam Steiner and came out earlier this year. I’ll probably write more about it later, but I am blown away by the chapter about “Up the Hill Backwards.”

Keep in mind that is is the album I listen to more, and have been listening to longer, than any other. That said, “Up the Hill Backwards” is probably the song from the album I have spent the least amount of time really contemplating. Nonetheless, you would think I would at least know the lyrics. Turns out I don’t know some of them. And that doesn’t help in figuring out what the song is about.

Even still, Steiner pulls from the song meaning that I see only after his explanation. To quote a few sections from the chapter:

“Bowie’s major life project was to try to become more than oneself, to push up against limitations.” This is remarkably close to one of the most inspirational things I ever heard Mario Cuomo say— “I am not enough for me.” It is actually an articulation of a public service ethos.

Steiner describes how Bowie replaced topical placeholder lyrics, “Skylabs are falling,” with “sneakers fall apart.” “Sneakers fall apart?” I have been listening to this song for years and never picked up on that. Anyway, Steiner explains that Bowie is “exposing an uneasy mind where nothing feels built to last.”

With the line, “I’m OK; you’re so-so,” Bowie “is calling out the hypocrisy of personal development guides when desperate people are poor, angry, and fighting for their lives as the city collapses down around them and the world beyond it burns.” I have been finding myself saying of late things like, “everyone has the right to their own values but math doesn’t care” or “disease doesn’t care” or “biology doesn’t care.” Feeling whatever self-help affirmations what us to feel is all well and good, but that’s no substitute for taking responsibility for making the world a better place.

As Steiner goes on to explain, “we are free to do anything but often remain inhibited either by state controls and economic situation, or by tunnel vision around which we build walls of ‘can’t’ for ourselves: better to complain of our situation, as if we were powerless to act, denying our fear to grasp life by the throat…true freedom lies in taking control over one’s life rather than coasting along, harried by gatekeepers, expecting new opportunities to be made for us…’creativity comes from obstacles, limitations and questions’… finding something to be in opposition to, even if it is an element within yourself, gives us renewed power of resistance—- on Scary Monsters, deviance becomes liberty.”

He got all that from this one song? I am astonished. That’s as close to an articulation of my life’s philosophy as I’ve seen, at least in a while. Not in totality (of course) but I really haven’t seen, or even thought of “Up the Hill Backwards” as an anthem to the idea that life’s meaning can be found in taking responsibility for shaping its course. A companion piece, of sorts, to what I think of as the Rush rule, as explained in the song, “Free Will”: “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

Except Bowie’s lyrics are far more oblique. Is it possible that I’ve only understood them subconsciously all these years? I’m going to go with yes, it’s possible. That said, I have always thought the meaning of the song really rested in the words, “up the hill backwards”— the idea I think of is struggle, maybe unnecessary struggle (why not go forward?). Futility. Sisyphus.

In fact in my mind, despite knowing full well its not how the songs go, I often conflate this song with the previous song on the album, as if the lyrics are, “up the hill backwards its no game.” We’re not messing around. This is work.

I got the effort piece, but I didn’t so much get the “take life by the throat” bit. But I like Steiner’s interpretation. It all makes sense now…

The video here is of the Bowie cover band, TMS Bowie performing the song. For my original comments, see Day 198, July 27, 2016 (the bold text is a link).

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