One of the greatest love songs of all time begins by compressing the human condition into a single word: “pressure.” The eponymous force of nature in Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” is a powerful one; Freddie Mercury sings that it “burns a building down, splits a family in two, puts people on streets.” The instrumental tracks are upbeat; the opening lyrics suggest doom and gloom; neither feeling entirely captures the point. Though “Under Pressure” has hardly been forgotten, it is rarely remembered as a love song — but it needs to be. We need to hear John Deacon’s bass riff again — ideally without Vanilla Ice coming along for the ride.
Like anyone, I can feel overwhelmed under pressure. Sometimes it comes while staring down the rainbow of death that is my Google Calendar during midterms and concert weeks. Other times, it’s when I encounter a bleak statistic about climate change or poverty. Far too often, we hear rants and chants of hatred and ignorance, whether they be on the news or in front of our eyes. It is even worse to hear pain in the voice of a loved one — or to hear nothing at all. Bowie’s entrance in the song captures the entire feeling in just a few words: “It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about.” These moments of desperation are enough to make anyone feel like they want to “turn away from it all.” While contemplating escape, the song slows down and grows quiet. Bowie and Mercury reflect together that they “sat on the fence, but it don’t work.” We can’t get away; we can’t make it better. “Keep coming up with love but it’s so slashed and torn.” Human beings are obsessed with love. We sing about it. We write essays about it. We pursue it during our waking hours. Yet somehow, love never seems to be winning: If people are so fixated on giving and receiving love, doesn’t it seem wrong that loneliness and pressure dominate our world? Mercury rises to a crescendo. He shows us what his voice can do while lamenting what our endeavors cannot. “Why?” he screams. “Why can’t we give love once more chance?”
Enter Bowie. His baritone voice crests the wave that Mercury created with his falsetto. “’Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word…” We love and seek out innovation and new solutions, but perhaps the ultimate answer is the first one we ever devised. Bowie continues that “love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night.” We keep hearing this theme. Why does a great love song keep reminding us about people on streets? Perhaps every love song should. A thousand pressures are always pushing inward, always making our own lives and our own concerns feel like the only things that matter. Love is the counterbalance; it dares us to look outward. It heightens the intensity and expands the limits of our caring. It is why we march down city streets at noon and why we trudge to a friend’s dorm at midnight. We must love beyond our comfort zones, across every border and barrier that we build. We must care about the people on the edge until there are no edges anymore.
It’s a tall order. The world is getting bigger and hotter. As relationships fray and nations rage, it becomes easier to fold into ourselves. “Love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves.” We need to make “ourselves” a bigger word.
Just like I have felt overwhelmed by pressure, I have also felt overcome with love. Sometimes it comes from the T.F. who stays for hours in a review session, or the conductor who always remembers to tell everyone how beautiful they sound together. It’s the hopeful story in the newspaper; it’s the volunteer who won’t stop working; it’s the hug from a friend; it’s the smile from a stranger. It is among the greatest feelings in the world to realize that someone you know has become one of your loved ones. We need more of that feeling. A good love song can capture it. A great one can inspire it.
“This is our last dance,” Bowie concludes. As we sashay across our lives, some music can bridge our solitude. That is what makes “Under Pressure” an undercover love song — it needs to be shared. I urge you to do just that soon. Maybe you need to share it with one person, maybe a hundred. At the end, as the voices fade into a stream of snapping fingers, you might have been pressed a little closer to whoever listened with you. “This is ourselves under pressure.”
— Contributing writer Michael B. Baick '22 is a prospective History and Literature concentrator who lives in Kirkland House.