I hadn't planned to write a full piece on David Bowie, limiting myself to reviving some older thoughts from 2013 on the nature of "cool" via Twitter, and slipping a couple of references into Monday's post on the impact that social media norms have had on the BBC's institutional bias, but I ended up pretty much writing one in disjointed comments elsewhere. So, in the spirit of the man himself, I have decided to rework the material: something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.
Bowie wasn't musically innovative, but he knew a good thing when he heard it. His breakthrough came with Glam, an essentially reactionary form that revived Rock & Roll and conservative affectations in the post-1968 era. If you couldn't stand James Taylor and liked saxophones, Glam was where it was at. As with any cultural fashion, there were multiple strands at play, from Roxy Music's art-school irony via T-Tex's non-nonsense boogie to Sweet's Carry-On Popping. Bowie happily nicked ideas from all of them. Despite the retrospective claims of revolution, his theatrical "gender-bending" caused less of a fuss at the time than Marc Bolan wearing high heels with jeans (long before Eddie Izzard appropriated the look), while The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was, as the title suggests, an unimaginative concept album in an era of unimaginative concept albums that was saved by some great standalone songs.
Following the peak of Ziggy-mania, Bowie's mid-70s albums were patchy, still obsessed with daft concepts (Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs) and increasingly short of ideas (Station to Station delivered 6 tracks painfully stretched out to 38 minutes). Everyone agrees that his move to Berlin, supposedly to kick drugs but more to get off the US stadium treadmill, marked a creative renaissance, but this was less about the right time and place and more about the right people, specifically the melding of indirect influences via Iggy Pop (proto-punk), Brian Eno (German electronic music) and Robert Fripp (avant-garde noodlings). If Bowie brought anything to the party himself it was his love of Soul. His real talent was that of an impresario: a manager more than collaborator, with a shrewd assessment of others. He was a Diaghilev, not a Nijinsky.
After the Berlin Trilogy (Low, Heroes, Lodger), Bowie reverted to form with patchy albums, fewer tracks and some less assured collaborations, but there were always a few gems to keep you interested until the mid-80s slough (a period he later dismissed as the "Phil Collins years"). As he turned 40, he also began to excavate his own past, both through the exploration of youthful memories (Let's Dance and Absolute Beginners) and the reworking of older songs, both his own and others, such as China Girl and Wild is the Wind. For all the emphasis of his fans on the Ziggy years (or later on Heroes the single), Bowie never lost his fascination for the music of his formative years in the late 50s and early 60s, nor his weakness for ballrooms and cocktail bar chic (it's funny to recall that Saturday Night Fever and Young Americans were both originally inspired by the dance-halls of London, not New York).
The last 30 years of his life saw little of real artistic note, though his marketing skill meant that any new release stimulated a brief frisson of hope. In the late-90s, he got aboard the zeitgeist train, launching his own Internet business and issuing Bowie Bonds. He even developed a reputation as a new media guru, correctly forecasting the impact of digital downloads on the music business: "'Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity ... You'd better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that's really the only unique situation that's going to be left". Of course, not all his predictions were sound ("I'm fully confident that copyright, for instance, will no longer exist in 10 years"), while his forays into politics or wider social issues (e.g. his inadvertent role in founding Rock Against Racism) were foolish even by the standards of a very foolish time, but then his career was a triumph of the brand over inconsistent product releases.
As a cultural figure, you cannot discuss Bowie without mentioning his emblematic role as neoliberal man, best captured in Michel Foucault's definition in The Birth of Biopolitics: "In practice, the stake in all neo-liberal analysis is the replacement every time of homo oeconomicus as a partner of exchange with homo oeconomicus as entrepreneur of himself, being for himself his own capital, being for himself his own producer, being for himself the source of [his] earnings". As well as his pioneering work with IP securities, Bowie would eventually turn his old dressing-up box into a highly successful exhibition at the V&A, proving that nothing was beyond the realm of monetisation. But his real contribution to neoliberalism was the twin concept that you could be whoever you wanted to be and that achieving this was down to your own efforts. Society was just a backdrop, a thought that would chime with Margaret Thatcher.
But where Bowie diverged from the Iron Lady was that he didn't change his persona from year to year like a new coat, rather he suggested there was no base persona to begin with. In the 1970s, when the counter-culture had ossified into a new conservatism, this essentially postmodern attitude was as welcome to a Northern kid struggling with his sexuality as a London Bohemian looking for novelty. Morrisey and Vivienne Westwood, despite the difference in age, were both children of Bowie. Nicolas Roeg's film, The Man Who Fell to Earth, captured this sense of wide potential. Despite the tragic story arc, what remains in the memory is not Thomas Newton's paranoia or dissolution, but his physical construction (false eyes and nipples) and his ability to become the fabulously rich CEO of a technology business despite being socially autistic. Whenever I see a modern tech-titan posing near a space rocket, I imagine he is trying to smuggle water off the planet.
Bowie's appearances on film were rarely satisfying, apart from The Man Who Fell to Earth, largely because his emotional range was narrow outside the pressure-cooker of a song and his non-singing presence owed much to a stillness that few directors managed to successfully capture (an exception was his appearance as Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan's The Prestige). Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence is an acquired taste, while Labyrinth is best approached as panto. Despite this, Bowie always seemed to be in demand by film-makers, which probably reflected their own youthful memories or the projection of fantasies triggered by Bowie's personae. What a lot of them discovered was that he really was a blank slate and that beneath the public image lay a polite, well-mannered, lower-middle class South Londoner.
When we mourn the passing of a public figure we are often mourning our own past through the prism of that figure's history, hence the "what he meant to me" spin of many of the Bowie eulogies. That's narcissistic, but it's also a feature of modernity. When collective memory has been globalised, and when we have been exposed to so much of a particular personality's "output" over the years, we inevitably feel a greater sense of involvement than a nineteenth century peasant hearing about the death of a distant monarch. Berating others for ostentatious mourning, or berating those doing the berating for a lack of humanity, are two sides of the same me-coin. To an extent we also resent this strength of feeling, much as we resent the emotional investment in a football team when they concede a 90th minute equaliser. A tribute connects us to the deceased, but it also means we get the last word.
As a creative artist, Bowie was an exemplary narcissist because he had the courage to selfishly pursue his desires, despite the collateral damage it caused to others. In contrast, most of us compromise with the world. I've sensed in some of the Bowie tributes a relief that he went quietly at the end and apparently without regrets, that he didn't turn into a bitter old man hectoring the media about the shortcomings of electronic dance music or the threat posed to the nation by Jeremy Corbyn, which meant the belief that "He gave me the courage to be myself" wasn't compromised. Our collective response has been narcissistic because its what he would have wanted. We are merely holding up a mirror to Bowie's now breathless face.