The entirety of the lyrics to Under Pressure is interspersed throughout the text in bold and italics. I ask that you consider listening to the track through once and then don’t skip over them as a falsely presumed familiarity may shift and encourage a deeper appreciation for the song. Pressure pushing down on me, Pressing down on you, no man ask for.
In 1969, Freddie Mercury met David Bowie during his day job working at a boot stall in Kensington Market. David was one year older than Freddie and had recently begun to receive critical acclaim following the release of his break out single, “Space Oddity.” Freddie would go on to form Queen just one year later, the memory of this chance interaction with a rockstar fresh in his head.
Seth Godin’s This Is Marketing is magnificent in its detail of how people act, react, and consume in accordance with how they believe others who are similar to them would. If I believe someone like me would display a certain behavior, I am inclined to do so as well. If I believe people who are like me wear all black, then the clothes I purchase and my style will reflect this. In the context of collaboration, this assertion becomes complicated—is it what would “I” do, what would “they” do, or what would “we” do that guides major decisions? Under pressure that burns a building down, splits a family in two, puts people on streets.
“Under Pressure” was released 12 years after Bowie and Freddie’s first interaction. I used to view the track as an iconic moment in which David Bowie collaborated with Queen on an anthem that sought to address the widespread anxiety riddling the youth in a countercultural context. It’s the terror of knowing what the world is about- watching some good friends screaming, “Let me out!” In revisiting the lyrics to the track and reviewing the industry folklore surrounding the recording sessions, I now believe that the lyrics point to a much more personal framework of anxiety.
I am going to boldly claim that there are two main groups of people when it comes to anxiety.
ONE- At its most extreme, this group “has never felt anxiety” or more commonly they’ve “felt anxiety when…”
TWO- This group owns their anxiety- “there is me and there is my anxiety and together we are one.” These individuals give their anxiety a unique personality through various labels- “it is my anxiety and it is different from yours.”
Given the opportunity to ask Bowie and Freddie about anxiety- I’m sure that they both would present a slew of reasons as to why their anxiety was unique. Pray tomorrow gets me higher- pressure on people, people on streets.
In 1986, when Under Pressure was released, the public was not concerned with either individual’s anxiety or the relationship behind the track. Both men were top contemporary artists and in collaborating, only greatness would suffice. Imagine how the two men felt unifying their sound- combining elements of their identities and style into a single track. What would someone like me do on this record? Chipping around, kick my brains around the floor- these are the days it never rains but it pours.
Bowie and Freddie Mercury’s bandmembers recall the recording process as both terrific and terrible as the two icons sought to outperform one another. In the most trivial moments, the two would compete to see who could show up to the studio later and who could stay longer. I believe it was the question of, “how would someone like me approach a song about (my) anxiety in a way that the whole world will be moved by?” that drove irrational behavior.
It’s the terror of knowing what the world is about- watching some good friends screaming, “Let me out!” Pray tomorrow gets me higher- pressure on people, people on streets.
I like to think of Under Pressure as a narrative of the two men reflecting on the pressure that they faced in working with one another on a track of such magnitude and the parallel pressure humans face in any given interaction stemming from what to say, what to do, how to say it, how to do it, and WHY. Turned away from it all like a blind man- sat on a fence but it don’t work. Keep coming up with love but it’s so slashed and torn- why, why, why?
The problem with any solution to anxiety is that if you try and eat, breathe, and sleep any singular mantra or behavioral shift, eventually, it will fail once. Once a solution has failed once, then twice, and then consistently- ugh -pulling the rabbit out of the hat no longer packs the same punch and the faith that was driving the show along diminishes. “Love”- the outlier to this claim- is the single solution to anxiety that I’ve found to be everpresent in every self-help book, religious text, and spiritual manifesto that I’ve come across. Love, love, love, love, love. Insanity laughs under pressure, we’re breaking. If we could all just love one another, there would be no reason to be anxious to begin with.
Can’t we give ourselves one more chance?
Why can’t we give love that one more chance?
Why can’t we give love, give love, give love, give love
Give love, give love, give love, give love, give love?
For better or worse, just because you’re sharing a studio with a man today doesn’t mean you didn’t have to fit his boots to get there and it doesn’t mean you will like him and it doesn’t mean the people will like what you create. In any given interaction, you may just fuck it up plain and simple. Now is when I could dive into, BUT if you channel love in every interaction then oh me oh my you will be fine baby look for that gratitude and swim in it… but that would be facetious. ‘Cause love’s such an old fashioned word and love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night and love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves. Love dares you to change OUR way of caring about OURSELVES?
When Freddie Mercury died, David Bowie performed Under Pressure alongside Annie Lennox at a tribute event. It is incredible to see Bowie’s clear understanding of his role in the performance- not taking any lines that would have been Freddie’s and allowing Lennox to shine… allowing Freddie to shine.
In making a decision and reflecting on what would someone like me do- follow up and ask yourself, “what would someone who I admire do?” Just because you’re sharing a studio with a man today doesn’t mean you didn’t have to fit his boots to get there- this makes you, you. Act out, own that pressure, and make a hit out of it because who knows how many chances you’ll get to do so later on.
This is our last dance.
This is our last dance.
This is ourselves under pressure.
Written by Kian McHugh / Photos by James Parr and Serene Mansour