Ground control to Blackstar: David Bowie


David Bowie. I have ambivalent feelings about his work and his passing. I liked looking at him more than listening to or paying attention to his music. Now he’s gone and we’re all paying attention.

Two or three most popular hits such as Golden Years and Fame aside, I found most of Bowie’s work pretentious and monotonous. His latest, Blackstar is no exception. I won’t justify my opinion, it’s just a matter of personal taste. 

But Bowie manages to take his revenge on his last album. Once accused of being a flash in the pan, he gets to thumb his nose at the old insult. Still, one wonders, does he, or is it just acceptance? In any event, it was remembered and included in the song-video, presented to us as an important last thought. So just who was this man who said, “stay with us Scotland,” before the Scottish separation referendum? A radical thinker, secret conservative, an artist, or something else altogether?

David Bowie is a manufactured persona. The actual David Robert Jones seemed to be a somewhat private man by all accounts. He and his wife, Iman, managed to stay well on the fringes of the spotlight for almost two and a half decades. First wife, Angela (Angie) Bowie claims—in her mildly coarse, name-dropping tell-all, Backroom Passes: Life on the Wild Side with David Bowie—to have helped Bowie craft parts of his early androgynous image including the costumes, hair and stage presentation, which is a plausible claim, given her history as co-adventurer, life partner and professional advisor.

As a stage presenter, Bowie takes fixation on the self to new heights. The gender-bending, the spiritual and sexual experimentation, the morphing from personality to personality, and the final lack of commitment to any single direction are taken collectively to be artistic expression and genius. More than anything, it feels like watching a man watching himself in the mirror. The audience becomes voyeuristic but ultimately uninvolved and irrelevant as it watches the great artist watching himself performing.

Bowie’s origins are derived not invented. His eponymously-named first album was for the most part an old cabaret music hall review. Space Oddity, his second, was still unformed, more folk-progressive rock than the new Ziggy Stardust Bowie we met in 1972. The experimental years between 1966 and 1970 affected most artists of the time. Fellini Satyricon, the disjointed, decadent, classical odyssey of a boy and a pale hermaphrodite, for example, came out in 1969, just as Bowie was in the process of inventing himself. But after the release of Ziggy, the rest is rock history.

Bowie was not a radical social or political activist in any sense, but was a supporter. In an MTV interview in 1983 he came out strongly for more black artists on American media, which he saw, correctly, as a major failing of the American entertainment industry at the time. Bowie and his wife, Iman, did publicly support causes such as abuse prevention, AIDS and HIV research, human rights, family support, at-risk youth, peace, poverty, women’s rights and weapons reduction, donating time and proceeds from projects. He recently signed a group letter delivered in Paris encouraging world leaders to do more to mitigate climate change.

In 2014 Bowie was awarded the best British male solo artist award and sent model Kate Moss in his place to accept the awards with the words, “stay with us Scotland.” The plea was perfectly timed to influence ever so slightly the outcome of the Scottish referendum on independence from Britain, which was handily averted. Labour MP Jim Murphy tweeted at the time, “David Bowie has had his say. Now you can do your bit to back Scotland.” If nothing else, this was one of the few times Bowie revealed his political alignment, which was definitely not a challenge to the powerful status quo.

The timing of Blackstar was also brilliant. Released just two days before his death, and dedicated to death and mortality, it sets up the retained image of Bowie’s legacy perfectly. The audience gets to directly compare the early glitter star with the dying black star as the lights go out and the final curtain falls. But what we don’t feel, in fact, what we are repelled from feeling, is a sense of identification with the actual death-mortality experience presented by Bowie. We’re watching a dark opera, in high-style form, not a reflection of life lost.

Blackstar is infused with disturbing imagery, not the least of which are spasmodically twitching dancers, sketchy male automatons in palsy, hinting at disease, ritualistic, reflexive sex, and women at the centre of it all, losing their tails, bearing us upside down and finally surrendering themselves to the twitching neurotic physicality of life. To watch it is not to want to watch it.

But Blackstar is not offering us a message, it’s offering up a fashion statement on death. “Here’s the appropriate look and feel and horror of not being,” it seems to be saying. Ultimately, It’s the Halloween costume meant to frighten us with its image. It’s a mask over the lack of meaning, lack of soul in the event, black buttons over the eyes and all. But then again, perhaps that’s the point. In the end Blackstar is simply the culmination of the Bowie brand.

David Bowie was commercially successful, famous and yes, did nothing to threaten authority or the power structure. He did manage to come off as a social revolutionary, but to be more accurate, he was more a translator of pop and fashion art—and the focus on the self as the principal screen for that art.

In the cold light of day the morning after, we can see with stark clarity the comfortable marriage of the two that David Bowie represented—narcissistic pop culture and power—with the pairing of Rupert Murdock and Jerry Hall. Fittingly announced the day after Bowie himself died.

I shouldn’t be too critical of Bowie, personally. I share some of his interests and a dark fascination with the mirror, perhaps much more in the past than I do today. But his passing presents all of us with a moment to reflect on how much we self-reflect in his manufactured image, and what it means for our culture that seems so obsessed with celebrity and selfies, and so little concerned with meaningful change.

Yet despite all of that there was a humanity to the man and a humility that seeps through, engaging us all, and encouraging us to step outside of our boundaries. And for that, and some interesting ideas on self-expression, we should thank him.

Here’s to David, may there be more like you. And as you say, you know there will be.


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