Bowie's first-order sin has always been the commission of art.
Fame notwithstanding, Bowie’s first-order sin has always been the commission of art. Nothing he has done in the last few weeks suggests otherwise. (Okay, there’s a canny PR campaign hovering about as well, which puts us somewhere in the star-crossed realm of meaningful commercial art, a Bowie stronghold.) Hardly an overt nostalgist, he has little choice nonetheless but to cite his past if only to blunt and subdue it. Just as Karl Marx is forever linked to Marxism (unfairly one might say), Bowie, however reluctant, is no less the elephant in his own room. He is also an artist whose later years happen to be coterminous with an odiously ascendant celebrity culture. Bowie the icon is rehashed endlessly in the culture-ether. Bowie, half-man, half-reflector panel, traipses through that very same mortal coil as you and I. We anonymous minions can forget ourselves and our youthful indiscretions. Bowie must reference his forever more. The past is continually banging at his door insisting it be let in. This may be a peculiar kind of hell. Only his moccasins know for sure.
As an artist Bowie has traditionally expressed himself through the ironic foil of pop celebrity and stardom. Human stars (the ‘genuine’ ones, if that’s not too oxymoronic) are pernicious creatures with pantheonic designs. Though they loom ‘above us’ on marquees, they are the world’s worst exemplars. This is not inconsistent with the Greek gods. Can anyone think of a worse role model than Zeus? The stars’ allure is second only to their insecurities which are ours too, only writ larger. Moreover this outbound craving is borne of an infantile terror of Mommy not hearing their cries, poor little bastards. As babies the gods were often swaddled, then sent down rivers or hidden in caves, often as a means of protecting them from their jealous fathers who ran the prisons stacked with tragic youth. Thus Tom Cruise’s violent smile is nothing more than a dirty diaper with teeth. That’s also why they can anticipate every nocturnal squirm of ours as we toss and turn at night over our quotidian affairs.
So forget the lurid tales of some unhinged nonentity digging through Madonna’s or Brad Pitt’s garbage. That is a narrow and discrete pathology for which people should rightly be detained. As you stand in the supermarket check-out line attending your journeyman appetites, who is peering at you from a dozen glossy magazine covers; also, who endowed relentless voyeurism with such ludicrous currency in the first place? It is we who are being stalked by them with pathologic intensity. Remember, the paparazzi (endless source of celebrity complaints) are part of their world, not ours. Each enriches the other in a flatulent symbiosis. Should the flashbulbs become too much, well, the final recourse for the beleaguered celebrity is to become a plumber or a florist. This they never do. Florio Sigismondi’s video of “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” ingeniously muddies the traditional victim-perpetrator roles. We’re all implicated in this referential-mad hall of mirrors, the fame game.
So how do you handle strangers, stranger? Each of us can lay proper claim to billions of them. Yet imagine being governed by the insatiable need to curry their mass approval. Verily, the celebrity’s sad, servile existence never rests. The protagonists of the Sigismondi video, the aging man and wife (who, one suspects, are themselves past-life celebrity survivors) find themselves progressively stalked by their prior personae. Celebrity is death, or at the least Mick’s inner teenager on life-support. Even worse, it infects and deforms the ‘nice lives’ of regular people. I can hear our culture’s ebbing soul-content imploring both sides of the red carpet to “reject fame first”.
That is why here, on this very bed of electrons, I’m calling for a blanket restraining order against all fully advertised parties along with five years of enforced interiority with a moratorium on celebrity dirt and the gauzy frame. We are a culture of vampires circling a depleted blood-bank. Celebrity is an anemic false frame—‘glamorous’ waifs puking their guts out in haute couture dressing rooms, all the while promised to the deadly lie of the Size One Chanteuse, when the reality (horrible word!) is acid-scorched esophagi and collar-bones belaboring parchment-skin. To all this, Bowie was always a canny straddler and split-screen ironist. There was Artist Bowie the Seer and Fashion Bowie the Liar. Has he finally toppled over into un-ironic art?
After that long-assed wedding toast, it’s time to face the music…
As songs, I’m struck by “Where Are We Now?” and “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” in the context of their uncomplaining service to a larger artistic statement or narrative. Granted, my eyes were drawn into their cinematic star-turns before my ears could get hold of them. Isn’t vision often the entry point today for sound? So yes, they are right-sized for their respective roles as evocative and compelling soundtracks to the videos. Not content with simply killing the radio star, video installs a directorial prerogative on the music itself. The formidable imprimaturs of video directors Tony Oursler and Floria Sigismondi are enough to give any sound wave pause. That’s why, ideally, I prefer hearing (and understanding) music before I see it lashed to video. Why not give the mind’s eye first crack and relieve the marketplace of one more boorish trespass? Instead, where songs were once platforms of pure unassisted imagination, we now ‘pick them on the screen, what they look like, where they’ve been.’ (Bowie 1974. Dang. When does prescience cross over into clairvoyance?)
There may be larger considerations afoot. Bowie could be signaling a shift towards a more seamless unity of vision. If so, we could see more music-video pairings from The Next Day, perhaps as a surrogate for touring. The simultaneous release of both song and video suggests a conscious gestalt as opposed to a stitched-together promotional afterthought. How exciting though if the artistic collective (1969’s Beckenham Arts Labs revisited?) becomes “the next Bowie thing” i.e. sublimating the marquee idol and persona factory for collaborative tours de force? These mini-productions may suggest a new direction.
[Note: As this essay was going to cyber press, I had the privilege of listening to the pre-release iTunes stream of The Next Day album twice in its entirety. Wow! WAWN and TSAOT reveal themselves anew within the context and pacing of the album. Suddenly their sonic fabric returns, rescinding all photographic evidence. What can I say except this album contains a series of necessary angels, songs that clearly had to be written. Bowie’s extended sabbatical replenished depleted tanks. Devoid of fillers and contract fulfillments, this music requires no video handrails. Still, the marriage of the two makes for compelling TV. Let’s hope for more. Great stuff!]
So, it’s kudos again to the video direction of Oursler for “Where Are We Now?” (I cover that video extensively here in Bright Lights Film Journal) and Sigismondi for The Stars (Are Out Tonight). Bowie is also blessed with some of the most gifted musicians on the planet: Earl Slick, Gail Ann Dorsey, Tony Visconti, Gerry Leonard, Zachary Alford, Sterling Campbell, David Torn. If we are witnessing a subtle portfolio shift more towards ‘charismatic artistic director’, who other than Bowie is fearless enough—or less covetous of fame—to attempt such a deft denouement during this, his grand return?
Have I mentioned Kim Kardashian? Star-power ultimately dissipates like the gaseous, neurotic energy it is, perhaps detained briefly beyond its time with nips, tucks and softer lighting after which the Elysian Fields of infomercials and tell-all books can beckon for a while. Not so the White Goddess who exerts, over her poet charges, a far more pitiless trajectory. She stabs ahead, seeming rather to enjoy the collapsed wonderments left in her wake. Poets are routinely bereft by age 30.
Some young whippersnapper once said age is just a number. After 50, it’s a number with a stiff back. I’m getting too old myself to play the cheap, tawdry ageism card. I love kids. Though I never played one on TV, I was one once and liked it so much that I had one. I worry about them today with their too-ready acceptance of tailored entertainment packages, Facebook thumbs and cable tiers. I worry they mistake themselves for an old man’s sly game of markets and demographics when they are today’s representatives of a naïve, unbeholden force eager to surprise itself. I still cannot process the recent incalculable loss of Aaron Schwartz. The kids would be in the streets if they realized the true magnitude of that theft. A familiar knife is plunged into the back of the future. Our fathers run the prisons.
Let’s be clear. Time belongs to the living—of all ages, even the elders, merely the taller children in our midst. Thus despite all that conspires to damn him with rearguard praise, Bowie deserves credit for bringing active grace to the ageless game of aging.