David Bowie: Rebel Rebel
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro;a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
"Rebel Rebel" is always going to be one of those songs for me. Whenever I try to break it down into its component parts, it feels a little absurd. Bowie himself has called it "the funniest song. I can't conceive how I wrote that now." All the same, when it comes on at the "retro" dance party, the redneck bar, or on the way home from work, you can't help but rock out to its quintessential message: we are young, we are free, we are filled with a special kind of love our parents will never understand. It's like "Born to Run" for perverts.
The musical and lyrical conceits of "Rebel Rebel" are, on the surface, nothing more than another recycling of rock's hoariest cliches: rebellion, sexuality, and the 4/4 stomp. Musically, virtually nothing happens—the drums only vary when they drop out for the hook; the overheated blues-rock guitar running throughout could be (especially in the intro) the guitar part from a million other songs. However, this limited palette of sound is precisely what makes "Rebel Rebel" enduring. The stripped down, no-frills rock & roll serves as the perfect backdrop for focusing on what really makes the song tick, which of course are Bowie's brilliantly stupid lyrics.
Bowie's not pulling any punches here, starting the song off with "you've got your mother in a whirl / She's not sure if you're a boy or a girl," or contrasting the overtly feminine image of "you've torn your dress" with "hot tramp," a term which could evoke either male (à la Chaplin) or female (à la Sinatra). "Rebel Rebel" is almost a post-script to the whole glam era, as though Bowie's made the realization that gender ambiguity is not tonic enough for rock's excess masculinity, but can actually be made to serve it. One gets the impression that he's tempted by the possibilities of an overtly homosexual rock song, but realizes that crossing that line wouldn’t be nearly as transgressive as bringing us right up to it. Taken at face value, "Rebel Rebel" is a song about the victory of youth, polymorphous sexuality and loud rock music over adulthood and societal conventions. More viscerally, the rebellion taking place is clearly personal, based on pure lust/love/attraction without deeper meaning or political subtext. All the main characters desire is to escape the mundane.
The monochromatic sexuality of the blues carried over into rock rather quickly. The male singer tells you either how bad he's been done or how bad he's gonna do it to ya while the phallic guitar rides atop the beat. The yonic drum element is mainly there to keep the girls dancing while the boys work up the nerve to make their move. Of course, the rhythmic elements of blues-based rock suit male sexuality just as well (especially within the context of a 2:30 pop song), but rock was first and foremost rhythm and blues, intended as dance music. And, as Don Dixon put it, "all of the girls like to dance but only some of the boys do."
David Bowie was always one of those boys.
Consequently, "Rebel Rebel" is a song that appeals across the board, and will continue to, precisely because it is both universal and vague. Not only is he making it a group activity from the start ("you like me / And I like it all / We like dancing / And we look divine"), the sexuality here is implicit rather than explicit, so the subject of the song becomes more one of freedom from constraint than some kind of prelude to sexual activity. Even better, he's left enough doubt about exactly who or even what the object of his affection is that it can be applied to almost any situation. Is he talking about a boy? Is he talking about a girl? Is he talking about a girl-boy or a boy-girl? Is he talking about a rock star? A kid? Kid A? Me? You? Himself?
In the end it doesn't really matter.
"Doo doo doo-doo doo doo doo doo."