Bowie reflections part 1: riding the tsunami

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Feature by Carolyn Skelton.

I was saddened to read of the (to me) unexpected death of David Bowie. A decent, humane man, he was talented and innovative. His songs had been part of the soundtrack to my life for a few decades – taken a little too young. Bowie has a substantial and loyal fan following. And the death of those familiar to us, can remind us of our mortality.

Nevertheless, I was surprised by the extent of the reported outpouring of grief by a seemingly large section of the public. Was this partly due to the amplifying effect of social media?

Bowie wasn’t the most radical, nor the youngest, to go too soon: Joplin and Hendrix died closer to the height of their most radical and productive years. The fatal shooting of John Lennon was extremely shocking. Immediately after his death, I spent a few days listening in stunned disbelief to Lennon’s song catalogue being played endlessly on the radio.

Freddie Mercury’s death was extremely upsetting. He was one of the publicly known casualties in the earlier days of AIDs, when victims were subjected to unbearable prejudices. Mercury also made something of an artwork from his dying with his “These are the Days of our Lives”:

already wasted and weakened, celebrating life’s good times, wanting to experience it all again one last time, as he gently rails against the dying of the light.

Bowie’s long career, and his self-reflections, provide some insights into changes over recent decades. He benefitted from the shift to music videos and digital media, and the related intensification of consumer culture.

I am one of those who Gordon Campbell referred to as preferring some kind of “authenticity” in art and popular culture; for me in the form of “social realism” and direct critique of society and politics: for instance as in the content of songs by Dylan, John Lennon, and Billy Bragg; and in the raspy raw, and soulful voices of Janis Joplin, Nina Simone, and Tina Turner.

In contrast, Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust (1972) and Aladdin Sane (1973) performances, seemed to me to be a bit of a diversion from more directly political and social “realist” music that had been strong in the late 1960s.

Bowie sought after and embraced stardom. He also critiqued some of its downsides, at the same times as maintaining his primary focus was on individual desires and frustrations. Even while recognising its dangers, Bowie still rode the 1980s tsunami of appearance and performance-focused consumerism. This is well explained by, Alex Needham, in his analysis of Bowie’s time in the US in the early 1970s. He was an alien Englishman seeking US-style pop culture fame. At the same time, he recognised his consumer excesses (especially consumption of drugs) was probably killing him.

In 1974, looking wasted and painfully thin, he performed “Young Americans” for TV. In this Bowie delivers a direct and angry attack on youth-oriented US consumer culture, while still being caught in its allure.

After watching the BBC’s documentary, David Bowie: Five years: the making of an icon, which showed on prime last week, I hypothesised that he had been a bit before his time with his very visually-focused performances.

Trailer for the programme:

Such qualities are part of what Gordon Campbell refers to as Bowie being “our first consciously post-modern rock star.”

In the 1960s Bowie says he was told he was too avant garde to be successful. But, in the early 80s, with the rise of music videos and MTV, he came into his own. He went mainstream, having forged a style that others, such as Madonna, learned from. They were provided with a media platform where visual and performance qualities were as important, if not more important, than content, sound, lyrics and voice; and which were a major vehicle for selling an increasingly escalating consumerist lifestyle. It also delivered Bowie to a whole new generation of fans, no doubt expanding his age-diverse fan base.

Many of those grieving on social media have pointed to Bowie providing support and confidence to alienated and queer people. I can understand how that would be true for a number of people. But, over the decades, Bowie was as much part of a developing trend with his androgyny, as being the only, or most out-there LGBT music star. There were others for people to gain such solace from. More on this in part 2.

Feature image from nosetouchpress

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Carolyn is committed to economic and social justice. She has researched and taught in film, TV and media studies, sociology and gender studies. Carolyn is actively interested in local history, and its impact on the present and future. Carolyn currently works part time as a research librarian in Auckland Libraries, which is part of Auckland Council. The views, analysis, and opinions she expresses on this site are her own, and not those of Auckland Council.

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