March 11, 2013, by Charlotte Anscombe
David Bowie now…
Dr Nick Stevenson, reader in Sociology & Social Policy University Park, and author of David Bowie now, looks at the pop icon’s appeal in the run up to his eagerly anticipated album launch
The media hysteria surrounding the news of David Bowie’s first album release in ten years and the excitement created by the Bowie focused exhibition at the V&A all point to the continued popularity of the star who originally lit up the 1970s. We might wonder what is it about Bowie that continues to excite so much popular interest? Some have claimed that Bowie like Dylan, the Beatles or Marley remains one of the last few genuinely global stars of popular music. This would mean that almost anything he chose to do would cause ripples in the public domain. Of course this is partially true but perhaps fails to investigate closely enough the meaningfulness of his star image. David Bowie quite unlike most of the celebrities today has lasted 40 plus years in the media spot light.
In 1979 Bowie released an album called ‘Lodger’. This was during a time when many felt that his career was probably grinding to a halt. The arrival of punk and the assault on the mainstream music industry meant that is was a difficult time for established stars like Bowie. Further there were stories in circulation about his flirtation with fascism, tales of divorce, drugs and mental exhaustion. Bowie’s considerable ambition on this record still puts most of the new generation of popular music makers to shame given the subjects tracked by the album range from sexual ambiguity, spiritual search, domestic violence and artistic endeavor.
The opening track ‘Fantastic Voyage’ offers a familiar Bowie theme through the concern whether we as fragile, imperfect human-beings can survive in a world built on violence and uncertainty. This was probably the first Bowie song I felt some connection with as a teenager. Bowie it seemed offered some critical reflection on how difficult it is to fashion an identity in the present. How could you indeed live a life of dignity and meaning in a world that just wanted you to ‘fit in’? It was then Bowie’s ability to articulate the vulnerability of the self in a world that continually threatens everything that you are that still speaks across the decades. His continual experimentation with ‘becoming’ has of course slowed down over the years, but there is still a strong sense of the self as a project that is far from completed. In part then it is Bowie’s ability to articulate a sense of difference under threat that continues to fascinate his audiences across the world.
Popular music has long since dealt with the myth of the romantic outsider seeking to offer ordinary people a message of hope and visions of a better tomorrow. However with Bowie there is no sense that the spiritual quest articulated within his music, image and performance will end. There is then no final resting place, but quite simply we are offered the drama of the ‘fantastic voyage’. If some of his restlessness has been calmed over the years then we should not be surprised, but if we expect Bowie simply to relax into becoming a middle aged rock star then we are likely to be frustrated. Bowie’s ‘alieness’ is perhaps less visible these days, but his radicalness still articulates the need to reinvent the self in what is often a cruel world. Our culture today which continually complains about being ‘swamped’ by people who appear to be strange and who don’t belong remains as uneasy with the Other as it has always been. If Bowie was able to theatrically turn his own self into an experiment with strangeness then we continue to need figures such as him to remind us that the chase for security and familiarity is likely to end in self-hatred. Bowie’s best work should be seen as a continual critique of the ‘fascist self’ that seeks to expel ambiguity and doubt from the ways in which we live.
The ground beneath our feet is continually shifting and the quest for the safe harbor is ultimately unobtainable. We can then turn Bowie into the nostalgia industry or a bland commodity but in the final analysis he is none of these things. Instead Bowie articulates a sense of the self as a quest and an experiment where we all need a certain amount of freedom and to take responsibility for what we become.