After David Bowie released his Pin Ups album in 1973, he began working on material for a theatrical production based on George Orwell’s 1984. The author’s estate denied him the rights to produce the project, but not before Bowie had written a few tracks that ended up on side two of 1974’s Diamond Dogs. If “Big Brother” is any indication of what could have been, it’s a shame he never got around to finishing the musical.
The song conveys Winston Smith’s love for The Party, which occurs in the final pages of the novel and only after great amounts of torture and brainwashing. For most of the book, Smith found solace in a reality based on his own senses and memory, even if it was in disagreement with what The Party said. Though the entire world might be told to believe that 2 + 2 = 5, he thought he could remain sane by knowing that 2 + 2 = 4. Convincing him that, by definition, a ‘minority of one’ was an example of insanity was part of his ‘healing’ process.
Bowie does a great job of representing this in “Big Brother” by contradictions in lyrical and musical structure. The first verse’s lyrics border on nonsensical. The glass asylum may refer to one of the ministry buildings, but capers, steel, pulsars, and whirlpools seem unrelated to the novel. However, the message is clear: the narrator wants nothing more than to be told what to think. This is then driven home by a chorus that is easy to imagine being sung by a worshiping mob.
Don’t talk of dust and roses
Or should we powder our noses?
Don’t live for last year’s capers
Give me steel, give me steel, give me pulsars unreal
We’ll build a glass asylum
With just a hint of mayhem
He’ll build a better whirlpool
We’ll be living from sin,
then we can really begin
Please savior, savior, show us
Hear me, I’m graphically yours
Someone to claim us, someone to follow
Someone to shame us, some brave Apollo
Someone to fool us, someone like you
We want you Big Brother, Big Brother
The second verse stands out in the song for its carnival-like atmosphere, a jarring change from the musical expectations previously established. It is here that Bowie sticks in the line, “I’d take an overdose if I knew what’s going down,” a sentiment that echoes Smith’s willingness, before his brainwashing was complete, to commit suicide for The Brotherhood (an alleged underground organization acting against The Party). Bowie mimics the anxiety of conversion by pairing Smith’s original beliefs with the most unusual musical passage of the song. By releasing the tension by jumping back into the chorus, we are left feeling relieved to find ourselves once again singing in praise of Big Brother.
Bowie also uses a device in this performance to warn us that we aren’t too far off from a similar fate. During the ending instrumental section we hear snippets of advertisements. Low in the mix, they sound like the constant, subdued voices you might expect to hear through a telescreen. Only these not-so-subliminal messages aren’t fictional propaganda, but phrases we hear every day on television and radio like “operators are standing by,” “we’ll pass the savings on to you,” and “available on compact disc.” Orwell refers to the age of the capitalists as a thing of the past but, in 1987, capitalism was thriving, helped, at least in part, by advertising campaigns that relied on ubiquity.
Obviously, it’s hard to cram a whole novel’s worth of material into a four-minute song and there are many themes presented in Orwell’s 1984 that are not referred to in “Big Brother.” However, by using a few musical and lyrical tricks, Bowie is able to touch on some that run through the entire book.