An Apologia for One of My Secret Favorite Bowie Performances: “Dancing in the Street”

Tomorrow would have been the 70th birthday of David Bowie, whose passing last year just after turning 69 was among the first of many signs that 2016 would be one long, miserable slog. I knew I wanted to commemorate the occasion in some way, but  I wasn’t sure how. My initial idea was to write a bit about Bowie’s forays into funk- and soul-based music; that felt a bit disingenuous, though, as realistically the majority of the credit for his surprisingly great experiments in “plastic soul” needs to go to esteemed collaborators like Carlos Alomar, Luther Vandross, and Nile Rodgers. It’s also a solid time to look back at Bowie’s (excellent) final album, last year’s Blackstar, but I don’t think I have much to say about the record that either I haven’t already said or Andre didn’t cover in his post from yesterday.

It was while mulling over these options that I remembered a post I wrote soon after Bowie’s death last year, about a performance so infamous and unloved that I felt someone had to speak up on its behalf. I’m talking, of course, about his performance with Mick Jagger in their 1985 cover version of Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street.”

To be fair, there’s a reason why nobody tends to mourn Bowie with “Dancing in the Street”–that reason being that it’s pretty much universally considered to be the nadir of Bowie’s (and, for that matter, Jagger’s) substantial oeuvre. Bowie scholar of the moment Chris O’Leary describes it as “a rotten record for which everyone involved should be embarrassed” on his blog Pushing Ahead of the Dame. I myself have been unkind to the song and its accompanying video in the past. I’ve frequently called it a waste of a Bowie/Jagger collaboration that, in some superior alternate reality, would have been a jointly-recorded version of 1974’s “Diamond Dogs.” Back in 2006, I described it as “easily a career low point for both artists, complete with campy and ill-choreographed dance routines, an utterly soulless musical arrangement, and a concept (Dave and Mick, you guessed it, ‘dancing in the streets!’) that was about as rock-bottom as the video’s budget.” Last year, I was more concise, and simply dubbed it “execrable.”

And yet. The fact of the matter is that there’s not another Bowie performance in all five-plus decades of his work that has given me as much joy as has “Dancing in the Street.” I mean real, belly-laughing, hysterical joy. Every time I see the video, I have to see it through to the end–often freeze-framing, rewinding, or just pausing to collect myself at my favorite moments.

© EMI, helpfully screencapped by Noisey

And oh, those favorite moments. I don’t even have to watch the video to name them. There’s the bizarre, unidentifiable accent Bowie adopts when he yells “South Americaaaaaaaa!” during the opening roll-call of countries and continents, foreshadowing the voice he would use the following year while singing as a Muppet in Labyrinth’s “Chilly Down.” There’s his actual first appearance in the video: doing some kind of weird back-and-forth skip (see the screenshots above), before leaping from a balcony and silently screaming like a feral, pouncing cat–presumably the same one he skinned for those pajamas he’s wearing under his khaki trenchcoat.

The list of highlights just goes on from there. The way he nonchalantly enters the frame behind Jagger, doing some kind of “walk like an Egyptian” move with his hands. The middle school talent show-grade choreography in which his legs suddenly emerge kicking into the frame from an open door in the foreground, followed by his whole body as he pops in and out to sing his lines. That inexplicable shot (see below) where he appears behind Jagger with his back to the wall, twirling his fingers roughly in time with the music before busting out the jazz hands and spinning around to join in on the chorus.

© EMI

There is also, of course, the “Dancing” video’s rampant homoeroticism–or rather, its absurd grotesque of homeroticism–which might seem like a coy nod to Angie Bowie‘s claim that she had once caught David and Mick “in bed together,” were it not for the fact that that salacious story wouldn’t enter the popular imagination for about five years. The pair mince about like a demented pair of cartoon queens, routinely placing their faces mere inches from one another’s and mugging for the camera; the video ends with a freeze frame of their wiggling butts, for Christ’s sake. As O’Leary points out, it’s a weird tack for Bowie to take after his own, controversial rejection of a carefully-cultivated queer identity in an interview with Rolling Stone just two years earlier. But it’s also in many ways the least remarkable part of the whole thing. After all, anyone even vaguely familiar with Bowie’s 1970s peak has already seen him play gay–and, frankly, do it a lot more convincingly than he does in “Dancing in the Street.”

Instead, what comes as a shock, and what I think explains the video’s unremittingly dire reputation, is how goofy he comes across. After all, the one link between the manifold Bowie moments being shared across social media in the wake of his death was that all of them were, in a word, cool: be he Ziggy or the Thin White Duke or even Jareth the Goblin King, we like our Bowie aloof, poised, and impeccable, hovering seemingly far above us mere mortals in the splendor of his otherworldly stylishness. In “Dancing in the Street,” however, Bowie is the opposite of cool; he’s the distant, middle-aged relative on the dance floor at your friend’s wedding reception. And, for me at least, that makes the video both endearing and weirdly affirming. It’s a disarmingly human moment, from a man who spent his best-remembered years trying doggedly to convince the world that he was something other than human; it’s the kind of thing that should never be allowed to happen, but did, and is thus precious and rare.

© EMI

So please, if you’re mourning David Bowie on the anniversary of his passing, I humbly request that you not forget this strange and wonderful footnote to his musical history. It’s only natural that when confronted by something like “Dancing in the Street,” one’s first reaction is to ask how and why it exists. But especially now, as we strive to make sense of a world without Bowie, perhaps the more poignant reaction is to reflect on how lucky we are to have lived in a time when two aging rock stars could unleash their poorly-made lip-syncing video on an unsuspecting fanbase, spawning 30+ years of unabated hilarity in the process.

This post was originally published on Dystopian Dance Party.

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1 Comment

Filed under 1985, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, pop rock, soul pop

One response to “An Apologia for One of My Secret Favorite Bowie Performances: “Dancing in the Street”

  1. Compelling interpretation of one of the most bizarre pop music videos ever made. Looking at it so many times over the years,have to wonder if all the goofiness and awkward moments about the song and visuals were 100% intentional.

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