I am pretty sure I thought this was a Bowie song the first few times I heard it. I mean, he wrote it at the height of his Ziggy phase, and though he wrote it specifically for Mott the Hoople it couldn’t sound more Bowie in vocal performance. But I think that is very telling of the time out of which it was born, since glam rock was promoting the idea of androgyny and blurring all kinds of lines that had kept society somewhat intact for generations; Mott the Hoople did a Bowie song just like Bowie, thus blurring the line between artists. Whether they meant it as a tribute to him, or whether the song as written was just so Bowie that they couldn’t perform it otherwise even if they had tried, it’s a testament to the power of Bowie and to the ability of artists to transform and transpose themselves in the early 1970s.
A lot of people look at this song as an anthem for the disaffected youth of the day, those who were outside society’s norms in appearance, sexuality, morality, and all that other good shit. But Bowie says it’s more of a warning, a continuation of the Ziggy story. The apocalyptic world Ziggy lived in was almost finished because of a lack of natural resources. Adults are out of touch with what’s really happening, while the young people are left to their own devices. Everyone was without electricity, and since Ziggy couldn’t play his rock & roll anymore the kids lost interest. Ziggy spread the word about the world’s end through song. Bowie explains that the “All the young dudes/carry the news” lines refer to the youth helping to spread the news.
Alright, I get that. But if you don’t know that background and you are listening to this song 40 years later, you will hear the song much differently. It’s been called a gay anthem, and I do believe it speaks to the LGBT community, especially the kids. But I think it can speak to anyone who feels different or ostracized. Bowie name-checks T. Rex, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and supposedly Freddie Mercury (not sure if that line really is about him, but I like to think it is) in this song, all while exploring the sadness and flamboyance and blah-ness of its characters.
How many songs can you think of that start off with lyrics about suicide?
Billy rapped all night ’bout his suicide
How he’d kick it in the head when he was 25
Don’t wanna stay alive
When you’re 25
Day-um. So this dude wants to off himself. The next lyrics talk about Wendy, who is shoplifting clothes from Marks ‘n Sparks, and Freddie, who is picking stars off his face. So here are some of our main characters, people we can call our friends. And then we have the man on TV who is calling them all juvenile delinquent wrecks. Well, shit. How do you think that makes them feel?
But then there’s Lucy.
Now Lucy’s looking sweet
Though he dresses like a queen
He can kick like a mule, it’s a real mean team
We can love, we can love
Lucy don’t play that shit! You can call gurl a faggot if you want to, but she will fuck your shit up. It’s okay to dress like a queen. And it’s okay to defend yourself. I think of my friends who are femme, and even the ones who aren’t but who still got called fag when they were in school. I think of the lyrics “All the young dudes/carry the news” in a more activist way, as in, All the young dudes/carry the news/they are queer/so go fuck yourself if you don’t like it. When this song was released in 1972 the gay rights movement was still fairly new. Stonewall was just three years earlier, and so many LGBT Americans were tired of being jailed and condemned and kicked out of their families because of who they loved. Those drag queens at Stonewall were not going to go anywhere without a fight. Even though Bowie has not said that this song has anything to do with all that, I definitely understand why it appealed to the LGBT community at the time.
And when Ian Hunter sings “you guessed, I’m a dude,” I think of androgyny rather than the other uses of the term dude. Again, Bowie has explained the song as something totally different, and maybe I just read LGBT subtext into it because all of my friends are gay. But I think it’s okay to get something out of a song that is not what the lyricist intended. It’s art. You see it with your own eyes. My first impression of the lyrics is that it is a song about bored, lonely, depressed kids who are always being shit on by society. Then I hear in it words of empowerment, that the young dudes are queer or just freaks who don’t fit in anywhere, but they’re putting themselves out there without any fear. And though one line says “We never got it off on that revolution stuff,” I think that what this song—and definitely Bowie—represents is revolution. I’m inclined to think that most so-called revolutionaries are bullshit artists. And though glam was all about pretense, that pretense was itself revolutionary, as it mocked society’s gender roles and the music industry’s—and fans’—expectations about what music should be. Glam rock came at the end of the hippy era, and it was a kick in the ass to the music industry as well as society. Love it or hate it, we would never have made it this far without it. Bowie was such a phenomenon, so important to so many people, and his chameleon-like persona set the stage for every single performer who came after. Everyone has to live up to his standards.
I realize I have spent so much more time discussing Bowie instead of Mott the Hoople; that could not be helped. But they are the ones who made this song famous, of course. It’s a brilliant, brilliant performance.
Carry the news, boogaloo dudes!