David Bowie fans have a different David Bowie they are pulled towards the: Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud, Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, or The Buddha of Suburbia all elicit an extraordinary yet distinctive response. Peter Doggett’s book The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s attempts to capture and untangle Bowie’s versatility and creativity “with a detailed examination of the man, the work, and the culture beyond” (1). Thus, Doggett sets out on an indepth deconstruction of Bowie’s repertoire juxtaposed against the historical, political, and social context of the ‘70s.
Using the late Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head, a socio-cultural history of the Beatles as a model, Doggett writes an impressive analysis of Bowie’s discography. The book is comprised of a short introduction positioning Bowie’s biography and work into context but then diverges into a track-by-track breakdown of Bowie’s music ranging from about 1969-1980. Doggett pays equal attention to Bowie’s mega hits and to rare B-Sides. Unfortunately, the text becomes too fact-heavy and interpretive eventually losing the essence that makes David Bowie so formidably innovate.
Doggett focuses on the music while sequestering most of the Bowie gossip and bawdy details to the introduction. For instance, Doggett’s includes a short rendering of Bowie’s dysfunctional family history, personal relationships, drug use, and sexual fluidity, etc. Skillfully, the author captures these moments as episodes that contributed to Bowie’s personal and professional persona rather than the sagas that entirely defined the man. More so, Doggett’s adroitly pays attention to each of the Bowie aesthetic reinventions and does not blur the multifarious personas. Rather, Doggett approaches all of Bowie’s art and music on a case-by-case basis, demonstrating the connections and disparities between Bowie’s work and other influences ranging from Nietzsche to Marc Bolan. But Doggett sees Bowie not only as aesthetically and musically radical but also as a type of social revolutionary who offers scrupulous critiques of consumer culture, political regimes, and heternormativity.
Doggett’s frames the ‘70s as a culture of dread still recovering from the larking ‘60s. He suggests the ‘70s were an era where cultural entropy and economic decay combated the “narcissistic preoccupation with the self” (13). Thus, the author adumbrates the context for Bowie’s work and imagery. For example, in the analysis of “’Five Years,’ the first part of Ziggy Stardust [are] snapshots of the end of times” (161). In addition Doggett’s analysis sheds light on some of the more arcane details informing Bowie’s work, such as the depth of the homoerotic metaphors and slang in The Width of a Circle.
Doggett contends that The Man Who Sold the World “takes more of a layman’s path through Bowie’s music” (viii) differentiating this text from MacDonald’s that was heavily based in musicology. However, this does not stop Doggett from writing obtuse musically theoretical breakdowns. For example, in the discussion of “Star”, Doggett writes “the song was elegantly constructed… a guitar interpretation offering a series of abrupt tonic-dominant shifts, and a coda that took an unexpectedly flattened route home from C to the key chord of G as if to signal the transition from daydream to the oblivion of sleep” (128). Not only is the music theory difficult to plod through, but Doggett also uses it to reinforce his own interpretations. Perhaps some fans agree that the song does capture the transition to sleep, but surely others hear a different interpretation. This is a problematic trope throughout the book.
Indeed, The Man Who Sold the World purges readers of their own unique interpretations of Bowie’s work. As fans, we all have our own connection to artists and their music, but Doggett’s positions his voice and point of view as supreme and authoritative. He thereby strips the fun, the enigma and the reader’s personal connection with Bowie himself and his music. It seems that Doggett prophesizes his own mistake when he writes, “what mattered in this song was the sound and the visions it implied not the literal meaning of the words” (236). But what Doggett accomplishes is infusing the reader with his own interpretation leaving no room for disagreement.
Doggett’s writing style is challenging as it verges on purple prose rather than clarity. A case in point, he ends the analysis of “Conversation Piece” with the specification that “[Bowie’s] voice was a warm, husky purr, but the ghost of Hermione [Farthingale] lingered over the track like a Gothic mist” (67). Or even more mystifying are lines that ring with academic rhetoric: “an eschatological obsession that was fueled by the belief that dominant culture was too corrupt and diseased to survive” (14). At times this distracts from Bowie and realigns the spotlight onto Doggett himself. A straightforward and precise analysis would have been preferable.
The Man Who Sold the World is better suited as a reference tool rather than a book for general reading. The listing and analysis of each song, one after the other, becomes an assembly line of information, an encyclopedia that lacks narrative vigor. On one hand, this puts value on Doggett’s eye and ear for Bowie minutia. On the other it can verge on the tiresome and tangential. In the end it is unclear who is Doggett’s intended audience; a casual fan or a Bowie neophyte could be uninterested in or alienated by the cultural and social detail, a fair-weather fan might not pick up the book at all, while a fervent fan would be turned off by the author’s overbearing interpretations.
To be fair, this review is not meant to lambaste The Man Who Sold the World as it is an informative and edifying examination of Bowie and his art. For those intending to read this book, I suggest you approach the tome slowly, preferably with your iPod in hand. Listen to a Bowie track, grab the book, read the excerpt, digest it, and repeat it. Do not expect to settle in and plummet into an all-consuming read.
For the record, my favorite Bowie is the Goblin King.