Valentine’s Day

vd

Valentine’s Day.

One of the last tracks completed for The Next Day, “Valentine’s Day” bristles with purpose: trebly, compressed, everything upfront, as if determined to get its hooks in you early. Scratched together quickly, it’s just Earl Slick on guitars (from chord-pacing acoustic to the lead lines) and the unobtrusive rhythm section of Tony Visconti and Sterling Campbell. It’s economical in structure as well, with just two D major progressions for verses (a set of knight’s moves away from the home chord) and refrains (a quick sweep back home) and then a shift to B minor for the coda.

The subject, if slightly oblique in the lyric, was spelled out by Visconti: “inside the mind of a high-school mass murderer named Johnny,* inspired by the spate of shootings in US schools.” An inspiration appears to have been the Columbine shootings, with the reference to the killer taking out “the football star,” but it could have been any of the endless run of American school slaughters of the past two decades: Red Lake, Virginia Tech, Nickel Mines, Northern Illinois U., Sandy Hook and so on.

It’s possible Bowie’s upcoming play Lazarus will shed some more light, as one of its main characters is Valentine, whose casting description was “the most ordinary of men—a person seemingly with little confidence—physically withdrawn to the point of invisibility; a loner who is in search of a friend—for some love—for a cause; but a man who is unable to edit his opinion and function as a ‘normal’ person; psychotic.” Or take the most recent revelations about the play, that some of its setting will be “inside the protagonist’s mind.”

So calling “Valentine’s Day” a straight-out depiction of a school shooting seems too literal. For one thing, who’s singing it? “Valentine” is seemingly another character, someone who’s confiding in the singer—the voice of a split personality, or the about-to-snap friend who’s warning the singer to stay home from school that day? And there’s little indication that the shooting is actually happening—it could well be a violent power fantasy (note how the setting shifts from school to “the mall” in the second verse).

“Isolation, revenge, osmosis” was Bowie’s précis for the song, and at its heart are the lines that build up the refrain—Valentine told me so, he’s got something to say. It’s a perversion of what Bowie had once promised his fans: that you can recreate your life, that you can build a life based on a commitment to change and renewal, that everybody can be a star. Here that dream of self-transformation is reduced to a hectoring, boorish demand—listen to me—at the point of a gun. It’s the terrorist position, as Leonard Cohen once called it: The terrorist position is so seductive that everybody has embraced it…Reduce everything to confrontation, to revenge.

Or just take how a line that Bowie in “Outside” had meant as a spur to creativity, a call to discard the past and focus on the present—not tomorrow…it happens today—is here merely the reality that some bastard with a gun could end your life today, just because he woke up and decided it was so. It’s happening today!

davie-bowie-valentines-day

It wouldn’t be as chilling if Bowie hadn’t made the song so catchy, with his Beatles chorus vocals (compare his ooo-la-la-las to those of “You Won’t See Me”) and Slick’s guitar arpeggio fills. Even the line about Valentine’s victims—“Teddy and Judy down”—has a sad Sixties echo to it, calling back to Ray Davies’ Terry and Julie in “Waterloo Sunset“; in a brighter time, the song could have been about them, a pair of lovers trying to work things out. Instead they’re just bodies lying in a classroom, another pair of names in a newspaper report (recall also that the names of the Aboriginal couple in the “Let’s Dance” video were Terry and Jolene).

And there’s a sense of building anger and disgust in Bowie’s vocal, how he moves from his opening fifth-spanning phrases that he drags through bars, gently extending his vowels (“treeeeasured,” “football staaaar,” “toooolld me”), to his agitated push upward on the title line to, in the coda, harping on a single note until nudging up or down to end a phrase (“it’s-in-his-ti-ny-HAND”).

The video, directed by Indrani and Markus Klinko, filmed Bowie miming the song in the ground floor of the Red Hook Grain Elevator. With Bowie dressed casually while playing a headless Hohner G2T guitar, the video’s intention seems to end the cycle of Next Day videos, lovingly depicting Bowie’s aging features in harshly-filtered lighting. (As the blogger How Upsetting noted, it’s the “living” Bowie after his resurrection in the “Next Day” video—a Bowie back on the job, doing the typical rock star thing where he pantomimes his new song in some obscurely chic setting—the Red Hook Elevator looks like a Roman bath.)

But there’s a barely-hidden violence everywhere you look—the way Bowie wields the Hohner like a rifle, to the point where some fans claim he was deliberately referencing a Charlton Heston pose; or what seems to be a bullet firing across a thrummed guitar string. And Bowie’s face, demonically grinning while he sings his refrains, is the counterpart to his angry closing vocals: own this. It’s a curse on his adopted country, a place in which the regular, random slaughter of children is considered the equivalent of some unavoidable act of nature, like a tornado. Hence the song’s title: a day meant to commemorate lovers is some grubby fanatic’s day of indiscriminate judgement.

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. July 2012, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day and later issued as its fourth single.

*Not sure why Visconti called the character “Johnny.” Perhaps an earlier version of the lyric had “Johnny” as Valentine’s first name or the name of the singer, or maybe Visconti was recalling some earlier Bowie “Johnnys” (see “Repetition” or “I’m Afraid of Americans”).

Top: Shots from Bowie’s “Valentine’s Day” video (Indrani, Klinko).

60 Responses to Valentine’s Day

  1. Steven says:

    This is my favorite song on the record, and I’ve been both anticipating and dreading your take on it — it’s troubling and insidious and lovely and horrible all at once, and somehow the imprecision of the pronoun there is apt, because those adjectives describe both the song and any intelligent attempt to wrestle with it. Astute and illuminating as always. Thanks, and I’m continuing to adore this blog as long as it lasts!

  2. … and don’t forget Terry, his brother … don’t know where I’m heading with that thought …

  3. roobin101 says:

    It’s a darling song, the tune is spot on rom-com montage music but the lyrics are of course insidious. It’s possibly the best bait and switch in pop since Babybird did Your Gorgeous. I think as well as The Kinks also The Killers are in there. Their debut album was built in this lyrical scenario.

  4. MC says:

    Terrific post on a great track, possibly TND’s finest, a beautifully-constructed pop song with an impressive sting in its tail. If it had become a full-on radio hit, I wonder if there would have been hordes of misguided couples dedicating it to each other on the airwaves on Feb. 14.

    Bowie’s high, sweet vocal tone, coupled with the crunching guitar, always make me think this could be a belated homage to Suede (who, of course, made their own impressive comeback around the same time).

  5. david says:

    “It’s a curse on his adopted country, a place in which the regular, random slaughter of children is considered the equivalent of some unavoidable act of nature, like a tornado. Hence the song’s title: a day meant to commemorate lovers is some grubby fanatic’s day of indiscriminate judgement.”

    Nothing to add other than to acknowledge why your writing is one of the most culturally relevant authorities on the Bowie legacy around.

    • billter says:

      Chris, I’m sure you’re not cynical enough to time a post so that there was a recent mass shooting to make it relevant. But it’s a sad commentary on the world we live that if you were, it wouldn’t be that hard to do.

      I assume that the paragraph quoted above is, at least in part, a reference to Jeb Bush’s reaction to the Umpqua shooting: “Stuff happens.” Which really ought to disqualify a person from holding any kind of public office at any level, but I guess this is no place to get into politics.

      “Valentine’s Day” is about as political as Bowie gets, though. (Thank goodness.) It’s too bad this song didn’t become a massive hit; more than anything else on TND, it seems designed for maximum accessibility – those “sha-la-la”s are absolutely shameless. It would have been a nice trick. As it is, this song awaits placement in some future “Inglourious Basterds.”

      • col1234 says:

        no, I had a sinking feeling that no matter when I put this up, there’d be a new shooting. for what it’s worth, it’s been scheduled for this week for a long time

  6. patr100 says:

    Yes, very 60s, very Ray Davies, We get a good close up look at the Bowie of today. even if smoothed out by lighting or post production, those restored teeth looking even more perfect and gleaming. As an aside for a DB doppleganger, though over a decade younger, try a Google picture search for a Uk Labour MP called Ben Bradshaw. Well at least I see a resemblance, though Bowie himself seems very well preserved for a man seemingly at Death’s door during the noughties if some rumours were to be believed.

  7. Dave says:

    dreadful song, dreadful video, dreadful faces. horrible.

  8. rufus oculus says:

    One of my favourites on the album. It has light and air to it whereas so many of the TND tracks are over dense. You don’t mention the obvious irony of the title presumably because it is so obvious

  9. Mr Tagomi says:

    It’s a fine song, full of hooks that pull interestingly against the dark subject matter.

    But for some reason – for me anyway – the album flags when it gets to here. I think it belongs on a different album. Or at least, it doesn’t seem to sit well with the TND songs that I consider to be the essential ones.

    It’s quite possible that one day I’ll suddenly “get” this song, and then I’ll feel the opposite. That’s happened before.

  10. gcreptile says:

    Not being a native english speaker, I was a bit fooled by the nice melodies. Then, when I saw the video, I was shocked. I think I like the song less now -not that I am against darkness in art, but the ‘spread’ between sound and visuals is somewhat too much for me.
    The ‘duality’ might have been …another… inspiration from Walker’s “The Electrician”, torturing as a love affair. Harmony and disharmony competing against each other.
    The Cohen quote is probably coming from his explanation of “First We Take Manhattan”, I guess – the terrorist (or vengeful artist) with a singular target, hardly distracted by his adoring groupie.

  11. Steven says:

    By the way, I love the connection you’ve drawn to “Outside” — connecting to an earlier lyric seems a nice little variant look at the how “The Next Day” is oddly, and oddly inconsistently, obsessed with the underloved sonics of Bowie’s ’87-’95 period. Thoughts on a more overt parallel, insofar as Valentine and the “someone” from “Goodbye Mr. Ed” both “see it all”?

  12. Maj says:

    Great song.

    Don’t even get me started on Americans and their unavoidable guns. Why is it so hard to get a law regulating this shit?
    Ah, yes. Money.

    And the endless arguments, just bc we regulate it doesn’t mean it won’t keep happening…so let’s not even try. Okay then.

    Never mind.

    I love this juxtaposition of Waterloo Sunset and oh hey! it’s about a sociopath! And the video is good. Scary. I feel you, DB, I feel you.

  13. RLM says:

    The guitar in the clip is such an odd choice, it feels like it must have some symbolic loading. Certainly it harks back to the “Next Day as Bowie retooling his 80s failures” theme many have detected… those guitars seemed to be everywhere for about 5 minutes in the late 80s… Didn’t he play a similarly nasty guitar in the Day In Day Out clip?

  14. crayontocrayon says:

    Easily Slick’s best contribution, it’s nothing too flashy but it’s spritely and plenty of hooks. This song and So Lonely You Could Die are both excellent at setting a set of lyrics against a contrasting musical feeling.
    I really hope the Tiny Hands line is a reference to the Vic & Bob song (“tiny hands, like PRINgles with FINgeeers”). I could see Bowie being a big fan of their nonsense humour.

  15. comicalArchitect says:

    I think it’s pretty clearly about the Northern Illinois shooting, given that it literally took place on Valentine’s Day.

    • Dave L says:

      Agreed, and I think in the video Bowie is doing his best to look just like the gunman involved in that shooting.

      Frankly I think this video was in bad taste — putting it lightly — coming right after Newtown. I was still numb from that event when this album was released and I can’t help but think about it when I hear this song and several others on the album. For me, Newtown was the most disturbing event since 9-11, and in some ways, exceeded it in sheer horror.

      Another problematic aspect of this song is that it doesn’t come across as an indictment of a mass shooting, so much as an celebration. That’s what a lot of artists don’t seem to understand, when you just mimic these things, it isn’t a criticism, it’s a glorification. Reminds me of when Oliver Stone came out with “Natural Born Killers” and intended it to be anti-violence — well, all that flick did was make violence look cool.

      Chris superb write up as usual.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Anyone notice a very strong musical similarity to “Everyone Says ‘Hi'”? Not exactly the same chords or vocal melodies, but nevertheless something of a variation on them, as far as I can tell.

  17. Stolen Guitar says:

    Best song on the album after WAWN and even that might be just because of the shock of the new two years ago (where does the time go?) and Slick’s contribution is significant. When was it ever otherwise?

    Great analysis, as ever, and really hoping that Lazarus will mean the prolonging of this marvelous page in the ether.

    Trying to persuade Karina Longworth at You Must Remember This http://www.vidiocy.com/#karina-longworth to do a podcast on Bowie’s filmic efforts. Now there’s a subject in aspiration, frustration and love unrequited…

  18. Momus says:

    1. Thank Christ this song has arrived, and I can be enthusiastic about David Bowie once more. It’s a truly great pop song: concise, acute and astringent, with a sticky, well-developed melody and a salient political theme. There’s just the right amount of sugar (mostly backing vocals) on the pill, and just the right amount of ambivalence to make it a truly disturbing work of art.

    2. What hat did David Bowie pull this out of, and why doesn’t he visit that particular hatstand more often? For once, on The Next Day, the verse vocals aren’t mumbled or fumbled with odd cadencing or reedy delivery. The irony is shot from the hip, and the perennially-topical target is hit dead centre.

    3. When this came out, I remember Visconti saying that he and Bowie both had school-age children, and couldn’t imagine anything worse than this sort of harm coming to them. I thought that was almost tempting fate, and I could imagine Bowie chiding him for putting the idea out there. Why bother to disturb the quiet domestic bliss of late-Bowie’s life (which apparently involves a walk to pick up Lexi from a nearby school most days) with any song at all, let alone one that broadcasts the ultimate disruption of that life, any parent’s nightmare?

    4. One answer would be that normality and psychopathology have a much closer and more co-dependent relationship than we’re normally willing to own, and that artists are the people who know this. Psychopathology has always played an important role in Bowie’s work, and the fascinating Lazarus casting details about a psychotic Valentine character “unable to edit his opinion and function as a ‘normal’ person” merely confirms that.

    5. We could go back to Running Gun Blues (“I promote oblivion / And I’ll plug a few civilians”) or One Shot or the cartoon sleeve for The Man Who Sold The World and find the same fascination with shooters, or any number of songs for the fascination with characters who’d like to feel “the world under their heel”. A bad song about bad things happening (Culture Club’s The War Song springs to mind) merely condemns it, a good song can see at least two sides.

    6. In my early relationship with this song I imagined Bowie thinking along rather similar lines to something Crowleyite record mogul Alan McGee says in his Cherry Red TV interview: the difference between rock stars who fail and those who succeed is something McGee calls “the assassin complex”. Certain people would actually kill to get famous, and they’re the ones who tend to make it. And I could imagine Bowie thinking some unthinkable thought like: “In what kind of young person today do I recognise my own early relentless ambition? In the 1990s I thought it might be internet nerds. But today it’s high school shooters. For better or worse — and from a completely non-moral standpoint — they are today’s rock stars, willing to kill and to die for fame, and for the furtherance of their point of view, however twisted.”

    7. Of course, the finished song acts as a critique — non-explicit, heavily ironic, poppy yet hard-hitting — of both the NRA (and I agree that the clenched “silver fox” Bowie we see swinging his axe in the video does look a lot like Charlton Heston) and the Republicans who kowtow to them. But to me it’s clear that there’s no satire on psychopathology without some fascination with psychopathology, and this is satire’s weakness: that it both condemns and partakes, declares the cake poison and takes a big chomp out of it. Even condemnations of violence partake of the glamour of violence.

    8. I appreciate the 60s references — Ray Davies and so on — but to me there’s also a strong 1950s retro feel to the backing vocals in particular, that “sha-la-la” thing. And for that reason the song reminds me of Drive-In Saturday, which also has a 1950s thing going on, and is also deceptively casual and conversational. In both songs, there’s a lot going on under the surface of the reported conversation: here, a killer reveals his bloody plans, in Drive-In Saturday we slowly realise we’re in a future world where people have forgotten how to have sex and have to relearn at the drive-in, watching old porn films.

    9. The Man Who Sold The World has a similar “reported conversation with dawning sinister revelation” device: a casual chat with a neighbour on the stairs turns into an amoral confession of cosmic horror. It’s classic Unreliable Narrator stuff, and the technique often gets traced back to Browning’s famous poem My Last Duchess, a dramatic monologue in which the narrator, lifting a curtain on a portrait of his dead wife, confesses vaguely to having had her offed.

    10. The duchess, you see, “had a heart — how shall I say? — too soon made glad, Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er she looked on, and her looks went everywhere”. The reason she had to die is that she was insufficiently critical of the world, and independent critical thinking is exactly what the Unreliable Narrator technique is there to teach readers. Without criticality, Browning seems to say, we too might die. I’m talking, by the way, about Robert Browning, the poet. Not John Browning, one of the world’s most prolific firearms inventors, probably better known to Americans.

    • “But to me it’s clear that there’s no satire on psychopathology without some fascination with psychopathology, and this is satire’s weakness: that it both condemns and partakes, declares the cake poison and takes a big chomp out of it. Even condemnations of violence partake of the glamour of violence.”

      Brilliantly put.

  19. Bowietie daddy says:

    It’s one of the Pixies’ pop songs without the screaming and Santiago’s oblique riffing. To make it more 80’s he should have sung: “Bang! Bang! I got miiiiiiiiine!” in the outro.

  20. steven says:

    great song. so what about that new album huh

    • col1234 says:

      a serious official blog response of sorts. I was expecting a new album in 2016—seemed like the time was right & there were portents. But was kinda hoping there’d be a few months between the end of blog & the newie.

      as i’ve said before, I think there’s little of value in me rushing out “hot takes” on the new songs in January. So I probably will get to them at some point next year, after the work’s had a bit of time to cool.

      blog will still “end” around the New Year as planned. But this new album spoiled a joke I was planning, in re the “Blackstar” song, so thanks DB!!

      • s.t. says:

        Is there a link for this news? All I found was a page that surmises that the rumors are false.

      • col1234 says:

        a trusted source of mine with lots of connections in pro music has confirmed the news is real, not rumor

      • Dave L says:

        Any word on who produced the new album? I think Visconti is great but I’m hoping Bowie will collaborate with someone new this go around.

      • BenJ says:

        I can see the value of your waiting to get some distance from “Blackstar”. And I’m glad that the Main Man is giving this blog some afterlife.

      • s.t. says:

        Very exciting!
        (and I totally agree about Visconti)

      • verdelay says:

        Only seven tracks, though…what a relief for the archivist!

      • Patrick says:

        Official announcement on DB website
        “Contrary to inaccurate reporting on the sound and content of the album, only the following can be confirmed:
        The single will be released on November 20th and is not part of David’s theatre piece ‘Lazarus’.
        The album will be released on David’s birthday, January 8th 2016.”

        But the theme he wrote for The Last Panthers wont be on the album… or will it?

      • Vinnie says:

        Giddy giddy giddy! Poor Bowie – his Next Day/Beyoncé moment won’t happen a second time.

        Chris – your work never ends!

        All: do you think Lazarus will be released in some official capacity? (I hope there’s EMS synthi on it.)

      • Michael says:

        @Patrick.

        According to what I see online, the single “Blackstar” is ‘excerpted’ for the TV theme, with the full version being the title track of the album.

        I’m sure others will know more, but what great news… Rejoice, the Lord is come.

        Also glad that it means we’ll have the blog for a little longer. It’s been an invaluable companion piece for me; a haven.

        God, I’m just so grateful for it all.

  21. s.t. says:

    I liked it straight away, but the more I listened and soaked up the lyrics, the more I’ve been inclined to avoid it. For Bowie to marry such a shooting scenario to a catchy pop tune suggests to me that while he has been living in the same country as me for decades now, he nevertheless has the luxury of distancing himself when things go batty. This topic of gun control/shooting leaves me angry and disgusted with half of my country, including several members of my family. I don’t fault Bowie for his distance, of course; I just envy it.

    The song itself is great. It’s got a chant like many of Next Day songs, but it’s one of the very few instances of Bowie actually singing a melody in his recent output. It’s sharp and demented and dark, as good pop art should be.

    Let’s just hope that some day all of us can regard the whole issue with a good deal of distance, when the craziest of the right wing nuts in the US finally die off. That’s a song I’d like to hear.

  22. So… speaking as someone who lived through a school shooting, I have mixed feelings about this one (gee, now there’s a conversation stopper if ever there was one).

    On the one hand, I think the decision to bury these lyrics in the most overtly chipper arrangement on the album was the correct one – rather than going for a “dark, edgy” vibe that inadvertently turns the title character into some kind of antihero, we get the far more disturbing effect of having to deal with the irreconcilable cognitive dissonance from the contrast between the lyrics and the music.

    On the other hand, the fact that the song’s impact hinges entirely on the subversion of the listener’s expectations makes it as much about the very act of writing a song about its subject as it is about the subject itself. As with most of Bowie’s “social commentary” songs, all it really conveys is Bowie’s alienation from the worst aspects of human nature, just as his songs about love are mostly about his alienation from love. The degree to which Bowie constantly seems to struggling with his own sense of detachment is part of what makes his music so appealing to people who feel like outsiders. It also makes him, generally speaking, a pretty shitty cultural commentator. His best songs about real-life subjects are the ones that throw his confusion into sharpest relief – think the scream of “I really don’t UN-derstand… the situa-TIOOOOOOOOON!” on It’s No Game (Part 1) or his manic ranting at the end of Young Americans. The thing that makes the songs on The Next Day simultaneously so fascinating and so hard to connect with is the sense that he’s become completely resigned to the distance between himself and the subjects of his songs, often viewing them with a contempt that borders on mean-spirited. It’s not quite Roger Waters-level misanthropy, but it’s as close as he’s ever gotten.

    I guess that’s why I can’t really muster anything but a grudging respect for Valentine’s Day. It takes a horrifying subject that had a direct impact on countless people I know and am still close to and offers nothing but world-weary disgust in return. It’s a provocative, disturbing, challenging work of art – and there is absolutely nothing in it for me.

    • Rufus Oculus says:

      Great post Anthony. I remember when Repetition cropped up on Lodger being flummoxed and unconvinced. Social Commentary. Bowie? Really?

  23. dm says:

    This is actually a fairly good cover of a MLIR/Parklife era Blur B-Side, don’tcha know?

  24. humanizingthevacuum says:

    When the guitar riff comes around, it reminds me of Pavement’s “IN the Mouth a Desert.”

  25. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Just to echo the point that it’s nice to be able to be positive and enthusiastic again. I particularly like the fact that here he’s simply singing and not obviously trying. In his world-changing days this would have been one of those little treasures – like Velvet Goldmine or Holy Holy – that he didn’t quite nail. But, then again, perhaps it’s the parts that are left unnailed that make Valentine’s Day.

  26. Vinnie says:

    (Took a break from the blog for a month – so much )

    Very catchy – – as stated earlier, Bowie’s best songs lately are the most simple.

  27. Phil Obbard says:

    One of my favorites from THE NEXT DAY. Dark, uncomfortable, and Bowie’s first effective social commentary song since “Repetition” (sorry, Tin Machine).

    Also, far and away my favorite of the videos from TND — simple and stark, and serves to enhance the listening experience, a must-have for me with any music video (and why so many videos fail so badly).

  28. Brian says:

    So this ties with ‘Grass’ for my favorite song on the album. In a way this seems to the descendant of “Toy”, except much better than many songs on that album. I love the instrumental, vocals, and the lyrics of this song and it was the second set of lyrics I memorized.

    This song also has the honor of being one of the few Bowie songs I’ve shared with non-Bowie fans to be liked and commented on. I’m not sure how I feel about that fact, or how Bowie would have felt- his most obviously “glam rock” song in decades ends up being the one people want to hear.

    I also find it an interesting “coincidence” that when he returns to a ‘glam’ sound the lyrics are once again about someone on the fringes of society- except this time it’s someone you’re not really sure if you want to help pull out of the margins. Pretty neat little subversion there on his part.

  29. Akars M says:

    The guitar bridge in this song reminded me of the bridge in Pavement’s “In The Mouth A Desert” for some reason. Someone in another comment here did mention The Pixies but Bowie was a noted fan of The Pixies, dunno about Pavement….

  30. Hikikomori says:

    The opening line sounds like The Sleepy Jackson’s (from Perth, Western Australia) ‘Good Dancers’

    “Valentine told me who’s to go”

    “Don’t always dream for what you want”

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