It is not often that a song and its artist become inseparable. But that certainly is the best description for “Changes” by David Bowie. The song is a manifestation of the man himself. Bowie was frequently called a chameleon, referring to both his ever-changing appearance and style of music. So much so, that the only consistent thing about his music was probably the fact you can expect him to come up with something different every single time!
“Changes” came out as the leading single of Bowie’s 1971 album ‘Hunky Dory’. The track is considered a signature pop song, where Bowie veered away from his usual rock sound. Reflecting on his own evolving self, “Changes” is about introspection but also bears testimony to his self-confidence. Commenting on his mindset at the time, Bowie said;
“I guess it was me being sort of arrogant. It’s sort of baiting an audience, isn’t it? It’s saying. ‘Look, I’m going to be so fast you’re not going to be able to keep up with me.’ It’s that kind of perky arrogance of youth. You think you can get away with anything when you’re young.”
Despite Bowie’s confidence, “Changes” was of course an unmitigated commercial disaster. It did not chart in the UK at all and only grabbed a mediocre #66 on Billboard Hot 100. Nonetheless, “Changes” is considered a classic hit. It is listed among Rolling Stone’s The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2017.
This is a song with a legacy that was built over time. As the years passed the song was featured in many of Bowie’s compilation albums. It became known as the song that embodied everything Bowie himself stood for. Of course, we can’t forget that “Changes” made a comeback in 2004 as part of the soundtrack for ‘Shrek 2’. Recorded by Butterfly Boucher with additional vocals by Bowie himself, it proved that the song, like its artist, would never go out of style.
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David Bowie “Changes” Lyrics Review and Song Meaning
Lyrically, Bowie’s “Changes” is a perfect depiction of the careless confidence of youth. As many critics pointed out, It definitely had an autobiographical element. Bowie was a man who lived his life out loud and unapologetically. It’s a tune for the young – full of untamed life and hope.
“Still don’t know what I was waiting for
And my time was running wild”
“Changes” begin with Bowie’s significant “Oh yeah” bringing the piano and the drums into play. The first verse talks of reckless youth. But it is also about being ambitious. Bowie talks of that sense of greatness that young people so often go looking for. Something that will let them make their mark. For Bowie, it was his music, and he wasn’t afraid of experimenting until he found that certain something he was looking for. Yet Bowie himself knew that it wasn’t easy. He kept running into dead ends and having to start all over again. Even when he thought he made it, he knew that he could do better. It is the drive of reckless youth, that idea of immortality that kept him going.
Bowie is somehow a lot more self-aware than most youngsters of the day. He knew that the best way to find what he was looking for would be to look within himself. “Changes” is amazingly introspective – and as the lyrics go, kind of like holding up a mirror to yourself. But Bowie did not follow his own advice, he believed that he changed so fast, evolving and moving, to the extent that it was impossible to catch a glimpse of him. So while the others might have seen him as a faker making his way through the music scene, he wasn’t that concerned about the fact. All Bowie wanted was to keep changing so fast, so that his audience – and his critics – couldn’t keep track of him. This was a young man who wasn’t afraid of anything. Bowie decided to tell the world that he would be the one to set the bar and he’d be the one to decide whether he’d made it or not.
“(Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes) Turn and face the strange
(Ch-ch-changes), don’t want to be a richer man”
If Bowie ever had a doubt about whether he made his mark or not, this chorus would erase those doubts away. The iconic stuttering “Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes” is an all-time favorite. Even those who don’t know who Bowie is might know this one. The stammering, as Bowie biographer Nicholas Pegg notes, was inspired by The Who’s “My Generation”. The chorus comes back to the idea of self-examination. Things are changing fast – it was not only his evolving music that Bowie was talking about – the world was moving towards a new era.
In the chorus, Bowie sings that one should always confront these changing times head-on. He is issuing a challenge to those who are resistant to change. Bowie tells the listener that he didn’t much care about being rich and famous, all he wanted was to come face to face with the strange and the unknown. Because he knew that the next time he would face his audience, they would meet a different man. Bowie’s attitude is certainly one-of-a-kind. He knew that nothing would remain the same. It brings to mind how we ourselves changed over the years as we grew up. Bowie’s “Changes” is a song that validates this growth.
“And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds”
Now, this verse is pure confrontation. Bowie challenges the older generation that always questions the younger one and is skeptical about the way they lead their lives. Bowie himself must have encountered many people who criticized him – for his appearance, his controversial views, and his music. It must have been a reflection of his career at this point, which was mostly a success here and a failure there. He acknowledges that each time something changed, the ripples grew larger, affecting everything. Bowie sings poetically that the world itself was a “stream of impermanence”, it won’t stagnate as some people tend to do.
“Changes” brings out an age-old argument that keeps getting renewed every generation. Bowie was living through changing times; the counterculture and the anti-war movement fights for civil rights and gay rights, the revival of the feminist movement, space exploration, fashion, and even music was advancing. Bowie was proud of his generation for keeping pace and moving ahead. He saw his contemporaries embracing the change, and attempting to create a positive impact despite the criticism of their elders.
“Ch-ch-changes, where’s your shame?
You’ve left us up to our necks in it”
Here, Bowie sternly questions his elders demanding answers. Bowie believed that the older generation was afraid of the future. Their resistance to change meant that the youth was left scrambling without guides or role models. They had to pave their own way and he believed that maybe the older generation’s aversion to change made things worse.
The youth were fighting on two fronts – to overcome the hostility of the elders all the while trying to keep ahead of a changing world. Bowie doesn’t hold back at all, calling out anyone who asks them to “grow out of it”. The accusatory tone must have certainly resonated with his audience. “Changes” is timeless because it encompasses the feelings of the youth of each generation that passes and comes along.
“Changes are taking the pace I’m going through”
Bowie’s smooth voice rings out in this part of the song, offering hope to the listener. He claims that change would always fascinate him and while it might be strange it will also be something new that he looks forward to every time.
In the final chorus, Bowie sings out a challenge yet again. He is prepared to take the world of rock n’ roll by storm so he asks the others to “watch out” for him. He closes “Changes” with a small reminder; that soon enough you’d be the one who’s older and resistant to change. So keep moving while you can and don’t become one of those boring older people that are unwilling to accept change.
Bowie kept true to his word. As time passed, his music, much like the man himself, continued to grow, gifting the world with creations like “Ziggy Stardust”, “Starman”, and “Heroes”. “Changes,” too, is a track that remains perennial. As Bowie sang so aptly, whatever label you put on – Baby Boomer, Millennial, Gen Z – each generation went through and will continue to go through similar growing pains to establish their place in the world.
Let us hear what you think about this song in the comments below. Check out the complete lyrics on Genius.