January 11, 2016, by Charlotte Anscombe
The Death of David Bowie
Dr Nick Stevenson, Reader in Cultural Sociology – talks about the pop icon following his sad passing
I woke up on Monday morning to the shocking news about the death of David Bowie. The previous Friday his new album ‘Black Star’ had been released and over the weekend I had been listening to the music. Inevitably we will now be told by the media that it was a masterpiece however for once this may only be slightly exaggerated.
For the first time in a long time Bowie’s music sounded well integrated and had captured a new flavor by working with some New York based jazz musicians. As much of the commentary has confirmed the album sounds like a farewell statement given that it is now common knowledge that Bowie made the album while struggling with cancer.
The themes of human mortality and death are not new to his work and these themes have become more prominent since 9/11. Bowie at the time of the assault on New York gave interviews about how his wife Iman had watched the twin towers collapse from their flat in New York. This event had seemingly had a deep and lasting effect upon Bowie’s cultural output which when coupled with his own withdrawal from touring after a heart tremor meant that ideas of death and dying were never far from the surface.
His previous recording ‘The Next Day’ released in 2013 had been his first album for a decade. Most of the media attention became focused on how he had managed to keep the release a surprise with the recording emerging on his 68th birthday without the usual media fanfare. However listened to more closely the album revealed a preoccupation with human vulnerability, the passing of time and some recollections about his past. If musically this album was not one of his most successful this can-not be leveled at his current release. The eclectic influences of Jamie XX, modern jazz and some of the more recent work of Scott Walker are all in evidence as well as long-time collaborator and producer Tony Visconti.
A preoccupation with human mortality in much art, literature and music is hardly novel. Not surprisingly other popular musicians as varied as Kate Bush, Bob Dylan and others have addressed this theme. This matters as we currently live in a scientific culture that seeks to bring death under control. Indeed I recently read about some researchers working in the United States who were aiming to entirely defeat death from the human experience. The pervasiveness of science and technology while extending our lives seeks perhaps to banish more existential questions from popular human experience. Art and culture in this respect continues to have a valuable role to play as it is only with a sense that one day our lives will come to an end that we can make our lives meaningful and vital. The attempt to erase this shared experience simply stokes a sense of collective fear and displacement. Bowie’s final gift to his many fans across the world was to try and communicate a sense of what it means to live with a sense of his own limits.
When I wrote my book on Bowie ten years ago many of the fans I interviewed (the final chapter) talked movingly about what Bowie meant to them personally. The theme of death and dying was never far from the surface. Many who had followed Bowie over his career were worried about him dying and there being literally no more new music. Bowie for them was someone who not only had acted as an inspiration, but also as someone they had grown up and grown older alongside.
The other theme that came up was how Bowie had literally grown old with a considerable amount of grace. In this media age of celebrity where many are concerned with appearance and the defeat of ageing and death it seemed that Bowie was a successful survivor from the 1960s. This is a considerable achievement in the culture of instant obsolescence. Many people recognise that modern capitalism produces a precarious society and the music business in no exception. More personally Bowie had dealt with divorce, drug addiction and financial collapse. Bowie’s dignity in this respect was often contrasted with other people who not only craved the limelight, but who had become desperate in the process.
For many of the people I spoke to Bowie’s vitality came from his ability to take risks and sometimes to fail. This was less a sense of financial risk and speculation, but artistic endeavour and creativity. Listening to some of the comments about Bowie circulating within media today, it is as if he never put a foot wrong. This was not the impression created by the fans who felt positively about Bowie not because of his wealth or fame, but because of his experimental attitude towards being alive. They all recognised that Bowie had produced music that was hard to like (here the Tin Machine albums were often mentioned), but that it was not really possible to make interesting and innovative music unless you pushed the limits of what seemed to be possible. This perhaps contains an important message in a society that treats failure as a mark of shame. What seemingly matters in a celebrity and consumer capitalist culture is less the quality or indeed value of culture, but more that it is successful in making a financial return.
Along with Bowie’s resonance with the lives of his many fans comes the importance of recreating ourselves while accepting we may indeed fail in this venture. Perhaps part of the reason that Bowie resonated with so many people was his capacity to speak (despite his evident success) from the position of the outsider. As a cultural sociologist I am used to exploring the more mythical elements of our shared cultural experience that goes beyond the usual appeals to rationality, predictability and control. Bowie remains important for his subcultural capacity to reinvent himself without sacrificing a sense of value and credibility.
David Bowie continued to communicate a sense of strangeness, mystery and otherness which despite living within a secular society we need in order to make human life worth living. The ‘myth’ of David Bowie is significant as it speaks of our shared need of poetry and the human imagination to make sense of the most challenging aspects of the human condition.