Jackie is just speeding away
Thought she was James Dean for a day
Then I guess she had to crash
Valium would have helped that bash
She said, hey babe, take a walk on the wild side
I said, hey honey, take a walk on the wild side
And the colored girls say
With his song Walk On The Wild Side released in 1972 Lou Reed plays with the idea of an engrained human fascination with ‘wildness’. Through this popular media form Reed portrays the liberation of his characters from social captivity, encouraging the audience throughout to join them on the ‘wild side’. The first line of the verse presents the pivotal idea of escapism. It is referring to the character’s use of amphetamines in order to escape reality and enter a wild world. This suggests a kind of transportation, from the norm, from sobriety into the risky and raw, potentially other worldly experience of taking speed.
In the second line Reed makes a bold comparison between the actor James Dean, who represents the ultimate ‘rebel’ in American popular culture and his character ‘Jackie’. This link to the young, believed to be gay actor, highlights the notion of deviating from the heteronormative societal conventions which the song as a whole challenges. Dean represents the archetypal damaged, dangerous youth. Challenges his elder and oppressive generations, just like Jackie does by taking amphetamines and being a part of the prolific pop artist Andy Warhol’s ‘factory’ art scene. The scene based in New York City was made up of a community of musicians and artists that circulated around Warhol, from the 60’s through to the 80’s it was (in several locations) a space of innovation and hedonism.
The second line is playful, it appears to be a dark version of a child playing dress-up, acting, performing, changing their identity just for one day. This flippancy adds a delightful boldness to the song, highlighting the immediacy of life and the way that our perceptions of ourselves are malleable. This liberates the listener granting them the freedom to change and play with their own identity, reinforcing the yearning for deviation and suggesting that walking on the wild side can be the path to true real self-discovery and awareness. Each character in each verse becomes larger than life through Reed’s portrayal, they are imperfect people that the audience can both identify with but also fantasize about due to their ‘wild’ nature and behaviour.
Despite the wild and controversial subject matter Reed’s song is lambent, its arrangement is light and airy despite the dark subject matter. With the captivating lyrics and back-up singers singing ‘doodoodoo’, he is poking fun at the idea of a frivolous pop song in itself. It is in the contrast between Reed’s deadpan voice with the up-beat backup singers that adds to the grittiness of the song and aligns him with the wild side.
Reed’s song is very repetitive, using the chorus and hooks to represent the cyclical nature of life, and of art. The song’s particular plagal cadence has religious connotations. The form of the song is one that is usually used in prayer and religious affirmation. This carrying of religious connotations in its core is extremely ironic in the sense that everything the song is documenting, the drugs, sex and rock n’ roll would be wholeheartedly condemned by any religious institution, especially the Christian church. The irony permeates deeper due to the fact that it then feels like a hymn or prayer about Warhol and Reed’s world, along with the more general counter culture lifestyle that the song depicts. It becomes a sort of alternative ‘factory anthem’, a prayer of non-conformity and a deep affirmation of the seemingly debauchery-filled lifestyle of 60’s and 70’s New York. The lines ‘and all the colour girls sing’ also plays a key part in the religious connotations and satirical tone of the song. Having African American back-up singers highlights racial inequality (at this time only white artists were given the kind of visibility to be a star), but also is evocative of traditional gospel music in America.
The chorus and title of the song appeal to a human fascination with non-conformity, it is suggestive, inviting the audience to join the ‘other’ side and in this case one of debauchery and ‘wild’ characters. This now seminal song maps the transitions of its cast, from innocent to sinful. It maps out the lives of its characters living on the edges of society, dealing in a charmingly memorable way with gender fluidity, prostitution, youth culture and as most ‘good’ art does, touches upon mortality/the inevitability of death.
The questioning lines ‘hey babe, take a walk on the wild side?’ draws the audience in and begs for participation. This suggests that the inner wildness in everyone can be tempted, or teased out like the ultimate rebellion and corruption of Eve in the Garden of Eden. This perpetuates the fascination with and yearning for ‘wild’ things, be they natural or performed.