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I’ve been listening to a lot of 1970s David Bowie lately; the Ziggy-era stuff, when his teeth were bad, but his music was good and Mick Ronson was there with a crunchy guitar to make everything better. It’s the result of The Algorithm, or at least, it was at first — Spotify thought to serve me up “Oh, You Pretty Things” on the same day that YouTube suggested a live version of “Queen Bitch,” and it felt as if the world was trying to tell me something, so I went with it.

The more I listen to this period of Bowie — my favorite period of his by some distance, I admit — the more two particular thoughts come to mind. Firstly, oh my God, you don’t get this music without his obsessive love of the Velvet Underground, and more importantly, what must it have been like to hear this when it was new?

I think this about the Beatles, too. Both were part of the establishment by the time I was really listening to music, with their songs both well accepted and widely shared, sewn into the fabric of pop culture and pop music alike. The influence of both had been soaked up and recycled to the point where some of the sounds and the ideas they’d introduced were watered down and robbed of their undiluted strength, and yet, I still wonder: what was it like to hear “Paperback Writer” and those chiming guitars for the very first time? What was it like to hear, “Gotta make way for the homo superior,” coming from someone who looked like Bowie?

A lot of this is rooted in how afraid and small pop culture was before these sounds, of course — how fragile everything seemed to the point where the Sex Pistols were seen as an existential threat, as opposed to a shit band with a fun attitude. But still: just imagine living in that small world and discovering these things for the very first time, and thinking, this is what the world could be like.

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