Monday 11 January 2016

David Bowie and Mass Mourning

Apart from waking up to a river flowing through your bedroom, starts to the week don't get much shittier than this. I was up five minutes after Bowie's social media announced his passing to the world, and all day I've carried around this ball of melancholy and loss. David Bowie was part of my life for all of my life, and now he has gone away. Yet by any standards, you couldn't call me a fan. His tunes have blasted out of my speakers over the years, but not with the kind of regularity suggestive of an aficionado. I am someone who liked his material, knew all the big tunes, didn't own any of his music, and yet still felt thrown and sad by the Thin White Duke's passing. Judging by the clutter on social media and politicians claiming to love Bowie's works, there seem plenty in the same position.

From the late 19th century, millions have felt connection to celebrities of all kinds. The monarchs, military figures, politicians, and dictators of the early 20th were overtaken by the non-genocidal but by no means less colourful figures from film, music, television. Their power to reach masses in their homes, in the car, at work, out and about afforded them a certain kind of ubiquity, and one that helped smooth over the fractures of our real social relationships. When the likes of Saint Etienne and ABBA were played over the in-store speakers, working for a certain Bradford-based supermarket chain made the experience less of a chore for me, 20 years back. It's these kinds of moments, the everyday infusion and infiltration of pop, television, and the stars they made into places we visit and inhabit that inculcates a peculiar familiarity with famous folk, even if we're never likely to clap eyes on them in real life, let alone meet them. In the age of the internet, this ubiquity is enhanced by first, the works of our favourite performers always being at the ends of our finger tips, provided one is accompanied by a wifi-enabled mobile device of choice. And second, the illusion of a collapse of distance between us normals and our idols. If I had nothing better to do, I could spend my day trash-talking Justin Bieber, trolling Miley Cyrus, sending love poetry to One Direction, and offering Lady Gaga style advice. Very occasionally, they or one of their people may respond, and many millions buy into that anticipation - though winning El Gordo without buying a ticket offers better odds. Mega-celebrities are effectively simulated people, but that doesn't mean the emotional responses from those who follow their exploits are confected and inauthentic. Camilla Long, please note.

Long-term readers might recall me writing about the sad, early death of Peaches Geldof a couple of years ago. What jarred was the snuffing out of a young woman's life who was very much in the public eye. She had become part of the background that, day-to-day, you expected to occasionally find on the telly, keeping the paps in work, and populating the sidebar of shame. The overwhelming majority of those who felt her passing in some way had this sideways glancing relationship with her celebrity, and felt it when she died. The same applies in David Bowie's case. In addition to his huge talent and influence, why many people genuinely feel something is because he was a part of their lives, whether they actively embraced him or not. As a kid growing up in the 80s, he was there in my background, occasionally releasing music and regularly performing. He was felt. And, as I've got older, I've gained an appreciation of just how deep his impact on British and American pop has been. That presence remains but, unfortunately, Bowie the man no longer does so. If you want to mourn, you have every right to do so and are in very good company. Celebrity lives are a collective phenomena experienced collectively, and when someone dies, it's understandable and reasonable for people to feel it.

I'm not going to finish on a downer. I'm going to play out with my favourite Bowie tune. It's not Let's Dance, but go on, let's dance.


TinMachine said...

jim mclean said...

John, I'm only dancing is probably my favourite, but the first thing I did was check the Bowie vinyl prices on ebay, just to see if the same mad buying spree was happening as it did when Jacko died. Well it is quite mental, people, many who may not have record players, paying £40 or £50 for an LP that usually goes for a fiver. Second rate compilations pumped out by the thousands / millions world wide. In their grief it is as if they are buying part of the man himself, these songs are all on youtube, they can be downloaded and brand new CDs are for sale. It is if the vinyl creates a physical connection, a part of the true cross.

BCFG said...

I think Bowie uncovers an unconscious mournfulness at the alarming decline of art and culture, fostered by technological change, the unfree media (particularly the gutter press) and shows like the X-Factor, which reduce art to selling cans of beans. Bowie's creative brilliance makes us emotional because his passing reminds us of the decline in creativity and the supremacy of the bottom line.

We know that those days will never return, from a cultural point of view I am not sure humanity has anything left to offer and humanity knows it, deep down.

This is why I think everything should now be freely available on the net for free. If this means some artists won't be able to make a living then good, they are not contributing anything anyway.

How anyone can justify living off something they did 20 years ago is beyond me anyway.

Unknown said...

If I remember correctly, he flirted with Nazi iconography in the 70s and made some statements which seemed to welcome a fascist dictatorship. This was part of the push to form Rock against Racism, a vibrant movement involving marches, concerts and the printing and delivery of 2m leaflets in 1979. Now, many artists have flirted with fascism, Lawrence, Yeats, Pound and Eliot, but that doesn't mean we have to dismiss their work because of it. Amidst all the hagiography though, it is strange that it appears to have Ben whitewashed out of history. A bit like discussing the Vorticists without mentioning that they supported Mussolini.

BCFG said...

I think Unite Against fascism forgave him and said he contributed to their funds. Eric Clapton on the other hand...

asquith said...

Birmingham New Street Waterstones (itself now closed) and then doing filthy dirty stuff in my girlfriend's room, October 2013.

Roger Scruton said...

Er, isn't it a good thing if former racists stop being racists, 18:01? Isn't that what you want?

jim mclean said...

I am sureure Bowie handed out Fascist literature at one time, the point with Clapton is he probably is the only English great that emerged from a working class background and he states he is expressing the views of his old pals, his keep Britain white yell was supposed to be a joke when out of his face. Probably is biased, anti immigrant but looking at some of his musical partner, not racist.

jim mclean said...

Haven't a clue what to make of the Angie Bowie thing on Celebrety Big Brother. Reality TV at its basic.

Anonymous said...

BCFG – I could not disagree with you more about the “decline in creativity” – I do say this a non-Bowie fan, not in mourning however.

There is a massive, non-mainstream music scene involving mainly young artists performing night after night. The range, depth and quality of their work is truly astonishing. The feel, small local venues and promoters, kids in clapped out vans touring the country on self-funded tours, releasing their own music (increasingly over the internet) is probably closer to the “punk ethos” than the original ever was. I have recordings from bands you will, understandably, have never heard of which rival anything any of the “greats” have produced.

The difference now is the industry, which no longer searches for acts to promote into the mainstream with any great vigor and cash. Such changes were always 90% luck, 10% talent in any event. This is what prevents the re-creation of artists of the stature of Bowie and in many ways this is no bad thing.

There is no decline in creativity it is just where you have to look for it. And, as the MU used to say – keep music live.


BCFG said...

I spoke as what you could call a non Bowie fan. But I can acknowledge that stood out.

Maybe this is an age thing but I go to local gigs quite regularly and have seen a marked decline in originality or attempts to provide artistic expression. Nothing I see makes me think, this is new and exciting. I sometimes think if nobody made any music ever again there has been enough made to keep anyone happy for a lifetime.

But I do accept your points, up to a pojnt!

Igor Belanov said...

I second SP.

The irony is that the more social media has enabled smaller alternative bands to reach a potential audience, the less the mainstream media and industry is willing to give them any space.

So, thankfully, many great bands can survive at a lower level of semi-obscurity, but many people who would like their work can easily miss out on them if they don't have the time or advice to catch them or check them out.

Anonymous said...

i think bowie was as much of an actor as he was a musician. in fact, his real genius was his ability to develop a fantasy-driven persona and then combine it with an interesting soundtrack. and to an extent, that's what he was doing all throughout his career, even when he was attempting to overturn or explode whatever persona he had previously been associated with.

"Ashes to ashes, funk to funky
We know Major Tom's a junkie
Strung out in heaven's high
Hitting an all time low"

Anonymous said...

oh, and one other thing:

@SP "The difference now is the industry, which no longer searches for acts to promote into the mainstream with any great vigor and cash. Such changes were always 90% luck, 10% talent in any event. This is what prevents the re-creation of artists of the stature of Bowie and in many ways this is no bad thing."

what you're really saying is that everything (and everyone) now exists in it's own niche market. but don't you think that's one of the factors that's currently eroding, if not dissolving, the public sphere. and are you ok with that?

Igor Belanov said...

@ anonymous 16.39

"what you're really saying is that everything (and everyone) now exists in it's own niche market. but don't you think that's one of the factors that's currently eroding, if not dissolving, the public sphere. and are you ok with that?"

If you're happy with everyone buying the same baked beans, eating the same food, visiting identical pubs where the same beer is served, etc, then I suppose being forced to listen to the same music and watch the same films and TV is perfectly fine.

The problem with the dissolution of the 'public sphere' is that too much of it is hived off for profit, and that the purchasing power available for consumption and enjoyment is vastly unequal. It has little or nothing to do with variety, which I would think many of us welcome, at least from a cultural point of view.