The Angel of History’s Outstretched, Crumpled Wings: Marketing David Bowie

David Bowie
The Next Day

The process of arrival behind David Bowie’s The Next Day album was revelatory and every bit deserving of Harvard Business Review case-study. All at once, the planet’s ears seemed crooked for a “visionary-sound”. Call it the “Listen to Me, Don’t Listen to Me” campaign — a paradox of stony silence that served, vexingly, to underline imminent sonic arrival.

Face the music, my fellow Angels of History: We slouch through an era of cultural exhaustion. Traditional barriers to entry (ya know, singular talent, hard-won record contracts, production budgets, stuff like that…) are in full-scale retreat. There’s a basement recording artist born every minute. Mediocrity now rushes in on the backs of myriad tuneless Pro Tools fools (more on backwardation presently).

The levers are just too well-advertised and too readily pulled, all to diminishing effect. In fact, so many folks are jamming vapid tweetery into the ether that, when the publicity machine is not being overtly fed it senses, almost through osmosis, the presence of Authentic Withheld Content (AWC). Silence becomes deafening. Telltale hearts woof with too much bass. This prompts pop culture mavens to lurch into Pathologic Ravenous Overdrive (PRO). I am guilty of rampant PRO-fessing myself. This whole Bowie spectacle has just been too much damn fun. Gods (and the jostling idols who would replace them) derive their power from mystery and withheld content. We’ve been fed very few graven images on this outing. Welcome nonetheless, to the construction phase of the Bowie re-deification project.

In a flock of sparrows, the pigeon is eagle. Today’s standard journeyman fare, available on all channels, has desperate celebrities and ambitious housewives eating bugs and writhing in glass spider encasements, all for the Higher Purpose of Being Seen and Heard. But being seen and heard for what exactly? Well, for eating bugs, what else? Such is the infernal circularity of the ever-circling oroborus. Oh how we seem to want you, Big Brother, so much so that you didn’t even have to kick the door down. Orwell was wrong. Huxley was closer. We welcomed you in via the one-eyed soma-box, that yammering telly in the corner. The Internet is icing on a longstanding televised cake where no file has been baked in to facilitate escape. Rather, we welcome our captors. Who would have guessed that, in the coming dystopia, no one would want to be voted off the island? (To all you aspiring celebs out there, please don’t listen to me.)

Thus, with mere days to go before the release of The Next Day, the anticipatory buzz had approached truly manic levels. That’s what a spiritual vacuum will do. Critics’ tweets were being studied, analyzed and sifted for clues. Indeed the tweets themselves were developing cult followings. Some sound-deprived fans took to ranking them on a five-star scale (five being ‘a classic’). Other tweets were being dispatched to the cut-out bin straightaway. The surpassing brilliance of the PR whisper campaign threatened to surpass the little ole album itself. Thank God the sizzle front-ran some real meat. All fear of spam was simply canned heat without light. Speaking of God, or at least his erstwhile earthly A&R man, even Pope Benedict XVI is alleged to have cited The Next Day as inspiration behind his decision to pursue a productive life post-papacy. The verdict’s in. Somebody up there really likes certain somebodies down here — so much so that second acts are getting booked. Look for Mr. Ratzinger’s new album in Fall 2013.

Nor were those irreligious swine, the rocks journos, far behind. In an unprecedented departure from protocol, the March 2013 issue of Q magazine promised to be a phone book and not a magazine at all. Meanwhile people the world over were dragging out their lizard-skin umbrellas in anticipation of torrential chameleonic references. Scary Monsters? Suddenly this had to be the best album since Sliced Bread Live. Had no album appeared at the end of this rainbow, the run-up alone deserved a Grammy nod.

Never mind the bollocks. Art must go on. A recent Facebook competition to create alternate album covers had me thinking both of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus and Walter Benjamin’s attendant vision of the Angel of History. It’s simply too apt for the time machine-machinations of Where Are We Now? By the way, Tony Oursler’s video continues to grow on me as a work of pure genius. I’m not averse to the song by any means. However the visual presentation is at least an equal partner, reminiscent of the collaborative Bowie — David Mallet coup of Ashes to Ashes.

Benjamin’s aphorism IX in On the Concept of History (1940) begins with a Gerhard Scholem poem which establishes the retrospective vantage as an appropriate (and tragically contrary) angelic ‘greeting’. That’s right. The heavens are mooning us. Perhaps swift kicks in the ass to our guardian angels are long overdue. You might not get kicked out of bed for eating crackers. Crumpled wings? A whole ‘nother faux pas altogether.

“My wing is ready to fly

I would rather turn back

For had I stayed mortal time

I would have had little luck.”

— Gerhard Scholem, “Angelic Greetings”

To this, Benjamin offers the following riff:

“A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

As he gazes over his own mounting pile of debris in Oursler’s video, back turned from the future, Bowie personifies Benjamin’s stricken angel. What is progress but unrealized debris-in-waiting? How can we awaken the dead and perfect the past when the future arrives at every instant with a fresh catalog of agonies and one-hit wonders? Some accounts of God’s angelic choir have them perishing at dusk only to be re-created, fresh-voiced, the next day. For one thing, this avoids celestial throat nodes. But what does it say about the way forward? All coherence is a retrospective. Legacy acts are our seers. The future is a lie.

Okay, so Benjamin was maybe not a guy you’d want to have over for a cook-out. (He left the planet after all via the ultimate form of self-harm.) No less, the past is crying out for our reconstructive ministrations, whether Walt enjoyed ketchup on his wounds or not. Meanwhile Paradise has developed a crack habit for wreckage. Some Saturnine figure is relishing the carnage, no pickles please. Salvation is a cruel pipe-dream. The 20,000 drones soon to fly over American heads are the shadow — forms of God’s failing, sung-out crew. Fingers are crossed. Guns and butter are stockpiled.

I’ll stop now before I end up slitting all our wrists. Now please sally forth, ass-backwards, and have a nice next day.