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Defector Music Club

Defector Music Club Faces Its Fears With ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’

11:46 AM EDT on June 27, 2023

David Bowie
Tom Gates/Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Welcome to Defector Music Club, where a number of our writers get together to dish about an album and share our favorite new music. This month, Israel Daramola, Giri Nathan, Patrick Redford, David Roth, and Lauren Theisen get together to discuss Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), which sits in the middle of David Bowie's transition from Berlin artist to radio juggernaut.


Defector Listens To An Album: David Bowie - Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)

Lauren Theisen: I picked this album because I think it’s the most acclaimed Bowie record that I hadn’t specifically listened to all the way through. I was hopeful that I’d have a "Eureka!" moment and discover an all-time favorite. On the first listen, though, I felt good but also a little lost. I love my Bowie when he has a distinct costume of sorts—the young folkie, Ziggy, that constructed soul singer persona, the Thin White Duke, the Berlin artist, the pop-radio savant—and this felt very much like a transitional album between that German intellectual phase and the stadium rock of Let’s Dance. But on the second listen, prepared for that feeling of dislocation, I could appreciate Scary Monsters as something approaching a classic—a paranoid, alienated record by a celebrity still figuring out his place in the music landscape, and one stuffed with ideas that call upon both his past and future. I couldn’t exactly picture the time and place of him making it, like I could so clearly with so much of his best work, but there are ways in which that ambiguity can be a strength.

With all that said, where does Scary Monsters stand amid your relationship to Bowie’s work?

Israel Daramola: Bowie is a complicated one for me. I am familiar with his discography and history. I was a full-time music writer at one point, so it was damn near a legal requirement. But I don’t know enough to pretend I have a real relationship to the music beyond admiration. Low has always been a favorite of mine, and Scary Monsters was a blindspot, so I appreciated having the chance to sit with it and get into it and read about it in context of when it came out. I love the idea of him making a commercial record just to show his most successful imitators how much better he was than all of them.

Giri Nathan: Here’s one ass-backwards way into Bowie: I watched The Life Aquatic in middle school and really liked the Seu Jorge covers and that got me interested in hearing more. Then I remembered that I’d watched Labyrinth on VHS one day when we had a substitute teacher. And then I realized I’d absorbed a lot of his music in the unconscious way that people absorb the music of hugely influential artists. Space Oddity was the first record I heard all the way through, having probably found it in our school IT guy’s magnificent shared iTunes library—remember those?—and I loved it. Over the next few years I picked through Bowie’s big singles and albums in a less systematic way. I remember spending a lot of time with Blackstar when he died, but it’s been years since I listened to a record of his in a deliberate fashion.

Patrick Redford: I have basically always been a passive David Bowie fan, learning about him by Nirvana’s “Man Who Sold The World” cover, also going Life Aquatic mode, deciding that I should listen to his music after seeing him in Zoolander (though this would take a while because the only Bowie song my parents liked was “Young Americans”), and—here is the most embarrassing sentence in the blog—finding out about “Space Oddity” from Mr. Deeds. I was into the Berlin records and the classico-style '70s stuff in college, but because this was all happening like 35 years after the fact, I couldn’t really temporally contextualize any of his records. In that sense, really sitting down with Scary Monsters for the first time, it strikes me as a synthesis of so many of the threads of early Bowie, a sort of omnibus of everything that happened in the '70s, which is maybe a weird thing to say about what is a fairly straightforward record.

Lauren: I love that you bring up all of those other threads (Seu Jorge!), because it gets at Bowie as cultural omnivore, in a time where it wasn’t quite so easy to know about everything. It’s especially wild to me that, the year Scary Monsters came out, he also starred on Broadway in The Elephant Man. 1980 is a year where Bowie could have gone in so many directions—he was an established icon for his time but hadn’t yet made several of the songs that would really cement him as a continuing pop culture presence today. He could have become a full-time actor, pop musician, art musician, behind-the-scenes presence, or cautionary tale. I think that confluence of pressures and influences helps make Scary Monsters feel like Bowie’s most modern, internet-y record of his classic era. 

David Roth: The Berlin records were important to me in the way that things were important to me in my late-high school/early-college development into an obnoxious person. They were about the weirdest things I’d ever heard that were also accepted as normal/popular at some point, and in the same way that I admired Talking Heads records for having somehow smuggled swirly-eyed edge-forward art music ideas onto the radio, I remember marveling at the three records that preceded this one as having gotten these incredibly soaring and strange expressions of what seemed to me even then to be pretty pure Drug Feelings into the mainstream. I think I’d assumed the Berlin records—Heroes, Station To Station, and Low were at the very least popular enough that they were easy to find in the $1 and $3 crates at the used record stores I went to—were more popular than they actually were. Scary Monsters also cost me $1, but it wasn’t until I was reading up on it for this that I realized it was a conscious (and successful) attempt on Bowie’s part to rescue his commercial prospects after blowing his mind and becoming a genius in Germany.

All of that said, I was struck in relistening to this that it’s still pretty fucking weird. It’s just a tick less icy and abstracted. But it’s the same musicians, the same producer, the same smooth cold surfaces. Just a little less antic and huge, and a little more hook-forward. I liked it more than I’d remembered liking it. I think, and this again goes back to me being obnoxious at the time in a way that’s at least less actively obnoxious than I am now, that I’d just filed this under Not The Berlin Trilogy and left it at that.

Israel: I am a sucker for a truly idiosyncratic artist. I hate to throw around genius so I won’t but I just mean any person that has a real vision, understanding of their specific field, and an understanding on how to make it a tangible thing. It’s hard making music but it’s really hard to make music that large swaths of people love, particularly when you’re as weirdo artsy as a Bowie. So for him to just decide to make his own version of commercial music and actually pull it off is impressive. I love a lot of artists influenced by Bowie and even ones that just outright stole his whole deal, but this feels like such a “king stay the king” type of record.

David: This is neither here nor there but I have a sort of running list in my head of what song is the best song, just in terms of quality, that you might also hear playing in a supermarket or a drug store. And I think “Ashes To Ashes,” which was one of the singles off this one, has to be up there. It’s a testament to Bowie’s charisma and the genius of the people playing and recording these songs that so many of these objectively outlandish and unsettling songs, all shot through with regret and self-loathing and distance, somehow became and stayed certified CVS Bangers.

Lauren: It’s one of those songs that’s bold enough to just hit you with its best hook literally the first second you hear it. (“Heaven Is A Place On Earth” is another.) But it also feels like a savvy commercial act to position it as a quote-unquote sequel to “Space Oddity.” It really doesn’t need to be about a Major Tom! But it works as both a slightly enigmatic way for Bowie to talk about himself, and also a nostalgia button for people who maybe liked Bowie in the early '70s but dropped him when he went to Berlin.

Giri: “Ashes to Ashes” goes so hard—that bassline would have me acting reckless in a CVS. When Major Tom was mentioned in the chorus, I pointed at the screen and said, “That’s Major Tom.” The song also triggered a goofy genre-bound thought for me. Going into the record, I didn’t really know where it sat in either the discography of Bowie or the arc of musical evolution. But then I heard this one and thought … this is a post-punk record? Or a proto-post-punk record, and those modifiers don’t cancel out to leave you with “punk,” because that’s not quite accurate either. 

David: As with the really good Bowie, it at the very least feels futuristic, or like it’s anticipating something. I guess this is because he sort of bent the curve of where things were going, and I have always been hearing things after the fact and kind of reverse-engineering that process. In this case, because I hadn’t really thought about the record as highly or as much, I’d just sort of rounded up and down on allocating these songs to other records. “Fashion” I had placed squarely in the mid-1980s, the like cocaine-psychosis popsmith “China Girl” era. “Ashes To Ashes” had been randomly assigned to one of the Berlin records because it had the same feeling to me. But as Lauren said I think it’s distinctly of this period of transition. The sort of regret that echoes through it is different than the yearning of “Heroes,” for instance. It’s not even a goodbye to all that, it’s just kind of watching it recede. And the playing on it is beautiful. 

Lauren: Oh yeah, I, too, had “Fashion” placed in my head on the Tonight album, for some reason. That almost sounds like I’m insulting it for being too straightforward, but really it’s just a tight, expertly recorded piece of 80s dance rock.

Patrick: Crazy that he wrote the best Talking Heads song of all-time, and put it in the middle of what comes off to me as maybe his most straight-up guitar-sound record.

Israel: “Ashes to Ashes” is a lot of fun but I love “Teenage Wildlife,” my personal favorite from this album. That romantic guitar opening, pumping marching drums, and dreamy keys. Plus it’s a lot cooler hearing him do “Welcome To The Black Parade” 25 years before My Chemical Romance. David Bowie the original emo goth.

David: I was delighted to read that “Teenage Wildlife” was interpreted in the moment as a Gary Numan diss track. I love Gary Numan, but that’s like finding out that Giannis’s postseason run in 2021 was inspired by his vendetta against Jakob Poeltl.

Lauren: “Teenage Wildlife” is so blatantly just a lesser version of “Heroes.” But a lesser version of “Heroes” can still kick so much ass.

David: Trying to make a more comfortably scaled-down version of something that gorgeous and over-the-top sounds cynical, but if you still end with “Teenage Wildlife,” you’ve objectively “nailed it.”

Giri: I loved how abrasively the record opens. “It’s No Game (Pt. 1)” has him throatily yowling over some very messy guitar lines, and it immediately rejiggered my expectations for what would follow. If any Bowie fans out there want to assemble a playlist of his screamiest tracks, I would be grateful. His entire genre-resistant career testifies to the fact that he could’ve fronted dozens of very different bands—so does this album, in particular.

David: That's another one I’d rounded back and allocated to Heroes, which has some of my favorite wild-eyed ranting Bowie songs on it. It’s less manic but it fits with some of the Hummingbird Heartbeat Anthems.

Patrick: Before I got to the heart of the album, having read nothing about it, I expected to go back and learn that the album didn’t sell but would be critically successful. Why else would you open by screeching back-and-forth with Michi Hirota if you weren’t trying to Do Art? It was oddly pleasant, then, to learn that he took his time with this one way more than a lot of the work that directly preceded Scary Monsters. It doesn’t ever really get bogged down or overfilled with ideas, either musically or lyrically. Is “refreshing” a misallocated adjective here? 

Lauren: Honestly, I feel like there are so many ideas on this record, and that gives the songs an absorbing, layered complexity. But unlike some of the artier records, the key is that Bowie doesn’t stick with any one idea for too long. There’s no “Warszawa" on this album, for example. And I think its success shows that, in this era of rock music, you could dip your toes in a lot of different experimental places, and audiences would be chill with that as long as they could groove to the song’s backbone.

Giri: Not to derail this conversation, but that last thought, Lauren, reminds me of how I felt during the Fantasy-Yeezus-Pablo run. It takes generational force of personality to Pied-Piper the general listening audience into weirder and murkier territory.

Lauren: And then, oddly enough, he leads the fans back into calmer waters. Those of you who know Let’s Dance, where does Scary Monsters fit for you next to that smash? The easy criticism would be to call Let’s Dance the shameless radio effort and Scary Monsters the last “real” great Bowie album until the late-in-life comeback. I don’t know if I want to be that dismissive of the big Let’s Dance tracks, but there’s a maturity here on Scary Monsters, and I don’t think it’s incorrect to say there’s a sort of mass-appeal regression that happens after.

David: Yeah, the late records, like Outside on, were admirably weird but lower key; I never really listen to them, but I liked them at the time. But this does kind of feel like he’s starting to recalibrate, even if it’s just realizing that he wasn’t really comfortable vibrating at the high and particular frequency of the previous records. Which makes sense, I guess, you can’t just … be like this forever. It’s absolutely reading something into the text after the fact, because we know the trajectory of his career from here and also because I personally revere him so much, but there’s something kind of inspiring to me not just in him letting go of that to the extent that I think he is, here, but in having first kind of mastered and tempered it in order to do so. It’s not a shivering cold-turkey scenario. It’s a moving on. Major Tom’s a junkie and all that; you have to leave him behind to finish whatever the mission is.

Israel: To me, Let’s Dance is like Stevie Wonder’s Characters or Brian De Palma’s Scarface. It’s the moment where you go “yup, too much cocaine at parties.” Good album though, much better in retrospect. The '80s were just a strange decade, man.

Patrick: I don’t care what they say, I will always ride for “Modern Love.” In lesser hands, it’s like the worst song of all time, but he puts his whole ass into it. Inspiringly campy, and like Giri said, genuinely impressive that one man could have all that power.

Giri: It’s funny, because when he slightly misfires—as he did, at least in my book, on “Scream Like a Baby”—I feel like I’m stuck in a malfunctioning amusement park with live wires flapping around in the wind as an accursed funnel-cake man hijacks the carousel. The campy can get scary!

Israel: Should we go back to “Fashion”? I bet a lot of coke was done in Studio 54 to that one.

David: Like a lot of the songs on this record, “Fashion” is way better than I remembered it being, and it has that Bowie signature of managing to be both danceable and extremely unsettling. He came by that honestly in the '70s because he was sleeping for 13 hours a month and using cut-ups for the lyrics and just doing everything possible to put and keep the listener off center. In this case, he just sat down and wrote this weird ominous pop song on purpose. I also highly recommend the video to those who like visual expressions of what it was like to consume various recreational powders during that period.

Patrick: I listened to “Fashion” and immediately felt myself pitching a “club-style pizza restaurant” at 200 words per minute, sniffling uncontrollably, and telling everyone how cool they were. I feel like I could dunk right now. I used to be able to dunk. Hand me that basketball, check this out.

Defector's Jams Right Now

Young Thug - BUSINESS IS BUSINESS

In the midst of a daunting RICO trial in which the US government and the city of Atlanta seems hell bent on taking down Young Thug, he (or his label) have released a new project. Based on the circumstances and some of the people that appear on it, it's probably fair to say that this album is a collection of assorted tracks recorded over the last few years and album cycles. So it's not exactly a cohesive statement and you're not bound to gain any new insight from it, but what it is good for is reminding you, in starts and stops, what made Young Thug so compelling in the first place.

Thug has always been a better rapper than he's been given credit for. Those who don't know better aimlessly toss him into the category of mumble rapper or trapper, but his magic comes from his jazz-like interpretation of music, rhyming like he's a trumpet in the orchestra rather than the entirety of the production. But here he's rapping his ass off, the way more conservative rap fans claim they want more of. He's dexterous and inventive and bombastic, an instant boost of energy to any song. He is a personality like very few before him, and that's his largest strength, but his desire to make large amounts of music has worn him out over the last few years, as has his desire to achieve a more mainstream sound. But in this moment, after so long without, it's just really nice to listen to the guy rap again.

-Israel

Amaarae - Fountain Baby

Dance/pop music is in a weird space. The snake is eating its own tail. Everything is a pastiche, a copy of a copy. They're doing Daft Punk doing Giorgio Moroder or they're doing Britney Spears doing Madonna doing Donna Summer.

On the one hand, this is just the state of music in general. Everything is 2010s nostalgia that was '90s nostalgia which was '70s and etc. But what bothers me specifically about dance music is that it's the last party genre. Rap and R&B have only burrowed further into themselves, standoffish and insular, while dance music and its various subsets like afrobeat and reggaeton, aims to be uncomplicated club music. It's successful, but it also feels redundant ... a lot.

Fountain Baby is one of the better pop records I've heard this year, but it still suffers from these issues as well. Amaarae's bubbly baby voice coos over groovy beats that seem to be purposely reminding you of better songs you used to remember. Her first project was plenty of fun, and now it feels like this one is the one that's supposed to "mark her arrival." It succeeds mostly, but similar to other great dance records like Jayda G's Guy and Nourished By Time's Erotic Probiotic, it drags in spots when it falls too in love with nostalgia. Nostalgia at a party is like a cool card trick—if you're reminded you of the fun you used to have to a different song maybe you'll think you're having fun again now. I'd hate to believe we're in that much of a drought of great new ideas.

-Israel

Protomartyr - Formal Growth In The Desert and Wye Oak - Every Day Like The Last

There’s a special, muted kind of thrill to a new record from an act that you’ve been listening to for more than a decade, and both these very different records by very different acts have been doing it for me of late. Protomartyr, which I wrote about for our year-end roundup back in 2021, is not so much smoothing anything out as finding a strange new command; if their albums are becoming less abrasive, it is certainly not because of any compromise they’ve made regarding the inherent hard edges to the music and Joe Casey’s allusively doomy writing. They just work the angles in tighter and tighter formation; the songs are prettier than they used to be, but mostly they just feel refined, or sharpened.

Wye Oak, which I’ve loved through a series of dramatic stylistic changes, still hasn’t put out a front-to-back studio record in five years, but this record—six standalone songs released over the last four years and three new ones—both scratches this particular itch and is a pleasing throwback to the last version of their sound, which featured Jenn Wasner’s guitar playing much more than what I guess still qualifies as the current iteration. Her voice and writing are great wherever and however they are featured, and much of the fun of following the band through its evolutions has been watching them find new ways to creatively frustrate and deliver on that basic pleasure. This feels like a finished thought of a record, even if it wasn’t recorded as such, but more than that it feels enough like a new Wye Oak record to make me happy just for that reason.

-David

Pino Palladino & Blake Mills - "Djurkel"

Mostly I love the album Notes With Attachments because of how noncommittal it is. Veteran session bassist Pino Palladino (whose playing I faintly recognized from his D'Angelo days) and multi-instrumentalist Blake Mills spend the record puttering around, dipping in and out of little unnameable grooves, which is a wonderful accompaniment for a life spent puttering. But I also really love this particular track for how deeply they commit, letting themselves grow loud and dissonant enough to crowd out all the doodles and filigrees.

-Giri

ABBA - "The Winner Takes It All"

The vast majority of Defector was all in one place two weeks ago for the launch of the Normal Gossip tour and some other official activities, and before the non-New Yorkers departed we wrapped up the excitement with a Thursday karaoke outing. Karaoke's been threaded through moments triumphant, terrifying, and cathartic in this group's lifespan, but this particular night was thankfully low-stakes: just another few hours to have some fun with the idiots who have defined my professional life.

I could go on for a while shouting out various performances. I do need to make special note that I killed "I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor" despite the fact that a quarter of the lyrics were cut off on the screen. But I'm most grateful to Sabs, who, still high off a visit to the hologram ABBAs across the pond, absolutely crushed this show-stopper in their luscious baritone. I felt legally dead the next day, probably because it somehow fell upon me to make sure we hit our minimum spend in the last 10 minutes of the party. But I listened to this song around noon and, no joke, got a bunch of work done in a sudden burst of energy.

Oh, and at the end of the night Sabs did "Red Red Wine" with Ray.

-Lauren

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