Whenever words and music are combined, it’s customary to treat the music as the more or less helpful servant of the words—and alas, many terrible songs have been composed in that way, words first and music as their accessory—but since sung words are often only partly understood, we’re often in a good position to see the words-music relation the other way around. That is, we can see how words offer clues, sometimes helpful but rarely necessary, to the import of the music. Sometimes no words are intelligible but the sheer fact that someone is singing in a certain way—or singing at all—draws us in to what the music is realizing musically. And what the music gives you is something you could only partially understand through words anyway.
If this is not true, I do not know what to make of my experience of David Bowie’s song “All The Young Dudes” as recorded by Mott the Hoople. The historical home of the song is 1972 and glam rock, but I think I first heard it well into the 1980’s—and was instantly brought into the fold of the young dudes, without knowing what a young dude is.
Searching for a parallel to shed light on how this sort of experience works, I remember an extraordinary encounter I once had with a baby spider monkey being raised by friends in Costa Rica. The monkey came into my lap and within a few seconds turned me into its parent. Now, I know that everyone has this sort of experience with human babies, and I have too, but the monkey was specially memorable for two reasons: one, because such an unexpected transformation was involved—it wasn’t a matter of seeing the little monkey as a cute little quasi-baby, it was a matter of me becoming an adult spider monkey (and this is significant because I’ll never really know what it is to be a spider monkey)—and two, because I remember a specific complex action by which the young monkey worked that magic on me: holding eye contact, it touched the sides of my face with its fingers, gingerly yet intently.
The chorus of “All The Young Dudes” makes a two-pronged move on me as well. It holds me in a groove with the soaring tune of “All the young dudes/Carry the news” sung by charmingly callow, wistful voices on top of a stately chord progression. But in the spaces and around the edges of this tune, Ian Hunter is addressing us—touching us with his vocal fingers—calling out “Hey, dudes! Where are you? Stand up! I want to hear you! I want to see you!”
The imperious enthusiasm of his call to the dudes makes me identify with him; then I wonder just how surprised we’ll be when the dudes show themselves in the space created by the invitation; I have the feeling that no matter how freaky they seem, it will be okay; this reassurance opens suppressed depths of curiosity about who I’ve been and who I’ll be, which leads me to imagine myself basking, all disclosed, in Ian Hunter’s acceptance—I want to be a dude too!—and completes the compelling circle.
So the song turns me into whoever is keening in the chorus and whoever Ian Hunter is talking to. The verses, on the other hand, do nothing for me, except I’m marginally aware that lives are being described. When I look up the lyrics I see they represent alienated youth, including gays. For all I know, the word “dude” already pointed to a very specific demographic for Mott the Hoople’s British audience in 1972. But the beauty of “dude” is that it means anyone anyhow—in this context, anyone anyhow as convened in the unspeakably optimistic tune of the chorus.