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Monday, March 27, 2023

Songs of '83: "Let's Dance"

"Let's Dance," the lead single of David Bowie's album of the same title, entered the Billboard charts 40 years ago this week. I have a fondness for every old radio hit that I've included and will include on this list, but this single by Bowie was one of only a handful of songs I'm going to talk about this year that I would actually call important

Huey Lewis once commented that in 1980s, radio singles were the only thing that mattered. (Which is, perhaps perversely, one of the reasons Huey Lewis and the News aren't going to appear anywhere on this list; they were a great pop band, and Sports, a great album, was released in 1983, but none of the singles which really defined that album and subsequently shot that band into the pop stratosphere made it onto to American radio until 1984.) In general, I think he was correct. This was before the internet changed the music industry, and even the cable revolution, led by MTV and the music video format, was only with the very artists I'm focusing on in this list truly coming into dominance. So really, the goal for any ambitious band was to have radio-friendly hit singles, and a lot of them; the album as a whole was almost an afterthought. But nonetheless, there still were a couple of truly popular artists who, for various reasons and in the midst of all these changes in both musical style and musical production, released albums that included, besides radio hits, a whole musical statement, even if it was only noticeable in retrospect. I've already mentioned one: Michael Jackson's Thriller. Later this year there will be the Police's Synchronicity and Madonna's self-titled first album. But Bowie's Let's Dance is maybe the most important of them all.

Here, after all, was genuine 1970s rock 'n' roller, probably the single most important figure in the history of glam rock, and thus central to much of both what punk rock rebelled against and what disco, post-punk, and New Wave picked up and re-worked in the years which led up to 1983. And as I explained in my first entry, Bowie made the argument which crystallized the underlying reality of the Second British Invasion, however implicitly: that there is a racially, culturally, sexually diverse and fluid movement coming out of the clubs of London and the discos of New York, one that was using technology to transcend both old rock categories and punk's angry rejection of the same, in a collection of styles that I think can best be called, simply, "urban." That's what Let's Dance, and it's lead single, brought forward: Bowie had some vague, folky musical ideas and a few chords, Nile Rodgers of the great disco band Chic transformed them in the studio, Bowie roped in the then-mostly-unknown blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn to add some essential licks, and suddenly there is was--a grand invitation for the cities of the world to just dance.

Serious fans of Bowie--and even Bowie himself--have mixed feelings about the album, which was more successful than anything he'd ever done before or would ever do after, and thus cast a kind of shadow that ended up sending Bowie himself in some weirdly repetitive directions in the years that followed. But who can criticize the song itself? Listen to the full album cut--those horns, those drums, those synths, and that bass line! Or just enjoy the video, and ponder the whole pop masterpiece: combining dance beats and confusing but ominous political commentary, all under the moonlight (the serious moonlight).

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