New York Times, March 6 2013
by Simon Reynolds
On “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”, the new single from David Bowie’s comeback album The Next Day, one line jumps out: “We will never be rid of these stars.” The original typed lyric sheet, recently posted on Bowie’s Facebook page, features a hand-scrawled annotation sketching out an idea for the video: “stars like Greek gods, cruel and controlling”. The promo turned out slightly differently, although at the start Bowie, looking and sounding like a doddery old gent, enters a grocery store and catches sight of a celebrity gossip magazine called Pantheon. The singer and actress Tilda Swinton play an elderly couple whose “nice life” is disrupted by a pair of demonic stars, who stalk and spy on them, then invade the house and control them like marionettes.
But the song itself is less literal. “The Stars” portrays celebrities as an overlord class of vampiric and tyrannical beings “soaking up our primitive world,”who “burn you with their radiant smiles”and “trap you with their beautiful eyes.” But stars are also faintly pitiable creatures, “jealous” of the quiet lives and grounded existence of nonentities. “I hope they live forever”, Bowie sings, a nod to the notion of fame as immortality, the compensation for its otherwise distorting effects. Death and fame are closely braided themes shadowing The Next Day, a dark, melancholy and surprisingly harsh-sounding album that’s receiving acclaim as Bowie’s strongest effort in decades.
A superstar critiquing celebrity culture could be taken as somewhat hypocritical, of course. Especially given Bowie’s full-spectrum assault on the public’s attention this year. For most of the 21st Century, Bowie had disappeared from view, even as the glam theatricality and gender-bending he pioneered in the 1970s was dominating pop through figures like Lady Gaga. Most assumed that he’d effectively retired, physically exhausted after a life-threatening heart attack and surgery in 2003 and creatively spent after four decades of self-reinvention. But in a brilliantly organized stealth attack, Bowie returned without warning in January with “Where Are We Now”, the herald for The Next Day. That album, his first in a decade, asserts Bowie’s continued relevance as a musician.
Meanwhile, his stature in pop history as the performer who has most convincingly bridged the gap between the worlds of art and rock is being shored up by a retrospective at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, a celebration of his mastery of all the non-audio aspects of pop, from clothes and stage sets to record artwork and video.
Bowie has always had an ambivalent attitude to fame. His biggest American hit of the Seventies, “Fame” was a harrowing dispatch from inside the paranoid bubble of superstardom. He’s returned to the subject frequently, from his 1999 album Hours, an exploration of “fame as injury” according to Bowieologist Nick Stevenson, to his new album’s “(You Will) Set the Earth on Fire,” the sales pitch of a svengali to a potential protégé. Bowie’s career has been governed by a bi-polar rhythm, alternating between relentless pursuit of the limelight and shattered retreat from it. Now, after his longest period of seclusion ever, the 66 year old Englishman and New York resident is back for what could well be his last blast, the supernova of his stardom.
Yet while Bowie himself has been virtually absent for a decade, the Bowie-esque has been omnipresent. After the Nineties, a period dominated by the authenticity and “real-ness” of grunge and gangsta rap, the 2000s saw the return of glitz and artifice. All the things that Bowie, alongside fellow glam rockers like Roxy Music and Alice Cooper, explored to the hilt during the early 1970s— over-the-top theatricality and spectacular staging, extremist fashion and sexual androgyny—became the defining principles of 21st Century pop.
Lady Gaga is the most visible inheritor of Bowieism, from her freaky costumes to her gender games (the male alter-ego Jo Calderone, the artfully concocted rumor that she’s a hermaphrodite). But there have also been figures like Adam Lambert, the American Idol star, who called his first major tour Glam Nation, and, on a more alternative level, cult performer Amanda Palmer and her punk cabaret outfit The Dresden Dolls. You can see Bowie-like currents in recent black pop too, from rappers like Drake who make their own fame the primary subject of their music, to the sharply styled theatricality of Janelle Monae, to Beyonce’s Ziggy Stardust-like gambit of creating the alter ego Sasha Fierce as a vehicle for her walk-on-the-wild-side impulses. Above all, there’s Nicki Minaj, who has her own alter-ego, the gay male character Roman Zolanski. While it’s unlikely that Minaj is directly influenced by Bowie, the parallels between his serial personae and her constant image changes are clear. As one presenter on a video pop channel put it, “there isn’t a single ‘Nicki Minaj’... she says she’s just being herself, but who she is changes every day.”
Among Bowie’s most famous pronouncements in his early career were “I feel like an actor when I’m on stage, rather than a rock artist” and “if anything, maybe I’ve helped establish that rock’n’roll is a pose.” Before Bowie came along, rock defined itself against show biz and Hollywood. There was meant to be a more or less direct correspondence between the performer and their real-life personality. But Bowie talked about playing characters, such as the fictional rock god Ziggy Stardust, or the cold, remote Thin White Duke. Like a movie star taking on different roles that refract a fundamental unchanging charisma, Bowie was paradoxically the same and yet different each time he came before the public with a new album and tour.
Bowie embraced metamorphosis from the start. In his pre-fame 1960s, he hopped through five bands and a variety of musical styles and looks before connecting with the public circa 1970. Once his career took off, the shape-shifting took on a new urgency. Pop taste is fickle. Some stars manage to become hardy perennials, but most are lucky to eke out a living playing their hits to an audience of nostalgic diehards. Bowie circumvented pop’s cruel turnover by turning himself into the New Thing, again and again. As he said in 1977, “my role as an artist in rock is rather different to most, I encapsulate things very quickly... my policy has been that as soon as a process works, it’s out of date. I move to another area.” Perhaps the fashion world has so lionized Bowie (Gucci co-sponsored the Victoria & Albert exhibition) not just for his cutting-edge style, but because he’s so thoroughly assimilated fashion’s own logic of remorseless supercession.
But there’s more to Bowie’s compulsive self-reinvention than a career strategy. It’s an artistic impulse (the desire to challenge oneself) and it relates also to existential anxiety (a fantasy of perpetual rejuvenation). What Bowie was really developing during his Seventies heyday was a new postmodern psychology based around flux and mutability. His great precursor and influence here was Andy Warhol, the inspiration for his song “Andy Warhol” and a role he would actually play in the 1996 movie Basquiat. Analysing Warhol, the critic Donald Kuspit wrote of “the protean artist-self with no core”—a description that fits Bowie perfectly. Likewise David Bowie Is, the intransitive title of the V & A exhibition, signifies “how wondrous ‘tis to live in a world that contains this polymath genius!” but also “fill in the blank space”. His career has seen that emptiness filled up, then erased, then filled up again, repeatedly.
But living like a cross between a chameleon and a magpie (Bowie is a voracious assimilator of influences and borrower of ideas) has its downsides. Read the biographies or the vintage interviews, and it’s striking how often intimations of hollowness occur, the sense of a man who is outwardly super-confident but who battles feelings of self-loathing and doubt. “I honestly feel that there is something incredibly lacking in my life”... “I’m not an innovator. I’m really just a Photostat machine. I pour out what has already been fed in.” ... “When I heard someone say something intelligent, I used it later as if it were my own. When I saw a quality in someone that I liked, I used it later as if it were my own”. As much as artistic hunger or artful career management, a continuing, returning feeling of inadequacy over what I've done” has propelled the restless remaking of self, the endless switches of sound and style.
Perusing the lavish book that accompanies David Bowie Is, with its dazzling procession of poses and images and its weighty critical essays tracking the dense cross-references to pop culture and high art, you get a sense of how much hard work it must be to be Bowie. Director Julien Temple, who made some videos for Bowie and cast him as an advertising executive in his 1986 movie Absolute Beginners, has spoken of the “grueling nature of reinvention... the huge creative surge required to do that again and again. It takes its toll, psychically.”
During the Nineties, Bowie did seem to be running almost on empty. (Indeed it’s noticeable that David Bowie Is features little material from after the mid-Eighties). For a while he subsumed himself in the collective identity of a hard rock band, Tin Machine. Then he tried reverting to earlier successful stages of his career. For Black Tie White Noise, Bowie reunited with Chic’s Nile Rodgers, the producer of his 1983 blockbuster Let’s Dance. For the adventurous but confused Outside, he re-enlisted Brian Eno, his foil during the experimental mid-Seventies Berlin trilogy of Low, ‘Heroes’, and Lodger. Switching strategy, Bowie attempted to refuel using cutting-edge electronic dance ideas on Earthling, a charming if semi-successful dabble in drum and bass. Finally he regrouped with Tony Visconti, the producer on several of his classic Seventies and Eighties albums, for the solid but subdued Heathen and Reality, records on which he seemed to reach a kind of settlement with himself.
The Next Day sees Visconti at the helm again, but this time Bowie seems galvanized by a desperate energy that over-rides the frailty palpable in his haggard vocals. Imagery of decay, debility and dejection pervade the record: “here I am/not quite dead/my body left to rot in a hollow tree”, “just walking the dead”, “I gaze in defeat at the stars in the night/the light in my life burned away/there will be no tomorrow.” Some of the morbidity-- references to “a room full of bloody history” in “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die”—may be influenced by books on Medieval tyrants that Bowie has reportedly been reading obsessively. But elsewhere the imagery seems obviously inspired by his own brush with mortality.
The Grim Reaper is no stranger to the Bowie songbook. He covered Jacques Brel’s “My Death, while his big UK hit “Ashes to Ashes” derived its title from the Anglican burial service. “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson,” on Outside, addressed “the fact that life is finite,” Bowie has explained. “That realization, when it comes, usually later in life, can either be a really daunting prospect or it makes things a lot clearer.”
But judging by The Next Day, Bowie’s close encounter of the near-fatal kind has only muddied things. There is little evidence of serenity or enlightenment. The climactic song, “Heat,” is a homage to the existentialist balladry of Scott Walker, who covered “My Death” before Bowie did and whose own recent work includes songs about the human body’s abject vulnerability and doomed dictators like Mussolini and Ceaucescu. “My father ran the prison,” Bowie intones enigmatically, moving through ominous lines about missions grown dark and worlds ending, before confessing “ I don’t know who I am” and “I am a seer/But I am a liar”.
Warhol believed “superstitiously” that fame could “keep at bay” Death, claims Donald Kuspit. When Bowie declares “I hope they live forever” in “The Stars”, it this a gesture of bitter solidarity with “the dead ones and the living”, all those stars who believed and who still believe in fame as salvation? You can reinvent yourself over and over, but Death, the Great Uninventor, will catch up with you. The naked torment of such apprehensions has shaped David Bowie’s twilight masterpiece.