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David Bowie’s isolated vocals of “Under Pressure” show how talented he was

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

A huge part of David Bowie's legacy is empathy. Through both his music and his very existence, Bowie had the power to make you feel like you weren't in this world alone. You could find a kinship in his strangeness — his performances as the androgynous alien Ziggy Stardust and his turn as the Goblin King in Labyrinth spoke to our inner weirdos. In "Heroes," he sings of an impossible love and longing that simultaneously feels intimate and relatable. And in "Changes," he urges us to "turn and face the strange."

One song that drives home the empathy element of Bowie's multifaceted legacy is his collaboration with Queen in "Under Pressure." But it's a different, more morose kind of empathy. Beneath Freddie Mercury's airy falsetto and soaring vocals, under the charming and now-infamous bass line, the scatting, and the gentle piano, "Under Pressure" is one heartbreaker of a song.

"It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about," Bowie growls in the first bridge, tearing the skin off the melody and digging into its true, darker meaning. "Watching some good friends screaming, 'Let me out.'"

Of course, Bowie and Mercury aren't the first musicians to sing a song about realizing that the world isn't completely bright or how they imagined. It's clichéd and abstract. But in "Under Pressure," they will it to be something better, something grander, something that transcends what it is. And you can hear it in their vocals.

"Cause love's such an old-fashioned word, and love dares you to care," Bowie sings, his vocals climbing toward some aimless height at the end of the song. "And love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves."

Just try not to sing along and sway. There's a shattering sadness here; it's both a plea and a surrender. And that's the magic of the song, of Bowie, and of Queen.

Even if it's just for four minutes, the world becomes a little clearer, a little less lonely. And you're a little less afraid to be yourself.

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