David Bowie is not your agile disruptor
Bowie wasn’t exceptional because he moved fast with the times; quite the opposite.
Since it was announced yesterday on Facebook, the death at 69 of musician David Bowie has been “liked” almost half a million times. Generally speaking, a click seems an improper way to convey regret. But in the case of the end to this particular performance, the like button doesn’t seem at all unfitting. Bowie, who died in New York City 18 months after a cancer diagnosis, deserves a thumbs-up for the symmetry of his end. In fact, he has earned a standing O. The singer found the means to release his least terrible record in years last Friday, also his birthday. The last Bowie album, whose title Blackstar is styled as a symbol, is the only one which does not feature an image of the artist on the cover. This is a marvellous way to finish things off and nearly erases the awful memory of Blue Jean. We cannot, of course, be absolutely certain that Bowie planned to end his public life so neatly. Then again, we can’t be sure that Oscar Wilde had rehearsed his perfect last words, either. Whatever the case “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go” is an apposite end to an artistic life formed in great wit and the last track on Black Star completes an artistic life formed in great ambiguity. Bowie’s last recorded lyric is “I can’t give everything away”. Bowie never gave everything away -- not even when he was off his dial on coke in the '70s promoting fascism to journalists. What he gave fans, both as visualist and musician, was years of hard labour. To appreciate Low, arguably his greatest album, is to give yourself over to the work of interpretation. There has been much written in recent hours about Bowie’s talent for “reinvention”. British Prime Minister David Cameron is one of many who has praised the artist for his ability to move with the times. Madonna has also honoured Bowie and has said that it was his willingness to change that inspired her own relentless “reinvention”. Give it a minute, and Turnbull will favourably remark on the man’s agile nature. While Bowie, who once sold himself as securities, can be easily understood as a man of the modern market, his best work, like all the best work, is not at all easy to read. The albums made with Brian Eno are some of the best in recorded pop not just because they innovated, but because they extended the language of already existing works. It might seem like Bowie was a “disruptor” and it makes a certain kind of sense that a politician like Cameron would cheer him to this end. But, this view of a go-go artist who just couldn’t stop changing his outfits does not reflect the experience many fans have had of his oeuvre. The '70s Bowie -- and you’d be hard-pressed to make an argument that this is not the transcendent Bowie -- wasn’t exceptional because he moved fast with the times. He was great, much of the time, because his records moved slow through a story of internal frustration. Bowie can be seen as the expression of the contemporary marketplace and, in the past day, the man who issued credit cards bearing his own image is widely celebrated this way. But to prize him as a “chameleon” is to remember him only as a greatest hits compilation. You can’t listen to Lodger or Low or Heroes or Station to Station and say that this was an artist largely defined by change. These works are slow, sometimes deeply depressing and themselves interrogate the very idea of change. Always Crashing In The Same Car is not the anthem of Silicon Valley. There’s a reason that generations of mildly transgressive teens continue to produce terrible David Bowie fan art, and it’s not that the man gave us the promise of “reinvention”. It is that he warns us that the habit of difference is likely to bring more problems than rewards.