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Valentine, whose casting description was “the most ordinary of men—a person seemingly with little confidence—physically withdrawn to the point of invisibility; a loner who is in search of a friend—for some love—for a cause; but a man who is unable to edit his opinion and function as a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!
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).