Wednesday, 27 March 2013

A perspective on Bowie: 'The phenomenon'

The V and A Musuem, London, which calls itself "the world's greatest museum of design and art" opened the David Bowie is exhibition a few days ago this March. It runs until 11 August 2013. The museum curators were given unprecedented access to Bowie's personal artefact archive. There is a lot of stuff in there from a Ziggy Stardust suit (etcetera) to attention grabbing multimedia including nine foot video walls, to original lyrics hand scrawled on note paper by Mr Bowie.

I was alerted to the exhibition by BBC's The Review Show (22 March 2013), and I heard the exhibition described as a collage rather than a chronological exhibition, and a very diverse journey. As you might expect for a discussion by critics who are really, mostly long term deep David Bowie fans, there was only a  little mention of the exhibition itself before they got lost into going on about the man himself and the past and the present. Evidently the exhibition inspires this.

I've often seen this perspective of David Bowie, not the full picture I know. For it is partly cynical and partly can't fully appreciate part of the core essence of what he did, but in ways it is also a full picture from a wider human sphere (that can't be fully or as drily defined or summed up, of course), as even intended. Even though it is a partly cynical perspective, it still was intended, is still inextricable from Bowie, I feel, and is a substantial part of the inherent truth of the essence of David Bowie as the man in his public work.

Here it is. Bowie is a definite cultural phenomenon and that is no accident. It is a deep phenomenon which this musician is. The phenomenon in large part involves the essence of the postmodern practise of receptionism (seldom used term, but central to some elements of postmodernism in culture).

What is this? What a thing is is substantially about the effect it is intended to have, or can have anyway where the effect is not so planned particularly. A thing is substantially about how it is received. With Bowie this is a cultural phenomenon that is to be, which is to be about being, a cultural phenomenon. "Spiders from Mars" sung to those notes told me this a long time ago. But this is more than just a cultural phenomenon that is about being a cultural phenomenon - it is the erection of a personality cult intentionally to be worshipped as a personality cult. As said in the BBC program, Bowie "permeates our culture" and "seems to be all round us". Even when he hasn't been active much, he is always very notably there somehow, or the notable absence of something large may register. I'm not saying this is the whole story, of course.

Of course, David Bowie himself might voice disagreement, saying he just is and performs. But I know he'd be lying really, of course. He can't not know. It's more likely he'd be laughing at me for even considering that last sentence.

In essence, Bowie is a cultural phenomenon precisely as a cultural statement, the statement being the phenomenon, the stating of this in itself. The phenomenon comes before what it may contain? Maybe, maybe not, but in any case it's inseparable. And I'm not suggesting that the content of the phenomenon itself is meaningless, drivel, pointless or anything like that at all, but the content is a separate consideration to the other inextinguisable element, the phenomenon.

The cultural statement in the cultural phenomenon speaks the embodiment of the personality cult, of the mad individual in society. There are, of course, elements of tradintional art obsessions such as the artist in society and the romantic notion of the society against the expressive, visionary or just sensitive individual - but in the cultural statement and phenomenon these have been designed to have gone to haywire proportions, intentially and from the blueprints, it seems. For the phenomenon, for the statement. "Love me in it", Bowie is saying in making the quite complex cultural phenomenon itself. (I wonder how close he gets to spelling this out. Not being a proper Bowie fan, it would take me some time to go through his stuff to try to see if there are times he gets obviously close to an out and out statement. My guess is he is so contained in character(s) and the phenomenon and the statement, he does not even envisage that he would allow himself to get close to "opening up".)

 That the traditional concerns of artists are made to really extreme proportions - again, the artist in society gone absolutely haywire - may be the only point of them within this cultural phenomenon. (In one sense, Mahler or Wagner may express the painful yet perhaps divine like notion of the artist in society but neither danced across a stage blaring it from their lungs, personally drawing you into this notion as it they were that and maybe significantly only that. The individuality of the individual is a major concern but as extreme voyeurism in culture, in peoples' faces, down their trannies, on their screens, in pubs, everywhere. And it is for the massess. This was mass appeal cult appeal voyeurism as if even in establishing in some artistically playful way a real sect, a real cult of worship as definitive in the cultural phenomenon. Interspersed in the man's career are definitions, elements, storylines of it, the voyeuristic, extremely distinguished individual as cultural phenomenon itself: The Man Who Fell To Earth, Starman (There's a starman. Yes a star, man. Guess who it is?)

It's distinct.

Regular BBC Review Show critic Natalie Haynes mentioned that her era was after mainstream Bowie, so after most of the real fuss, after much of the real phenomenon itself. (But it is something which can't really die to give way for a pure musician that was never bound up it in.) That was a more restrained, perhaps sensible and mindful area in culture - the 80s and 90s. It did not have so much time for the mad personality cult as art and cultural plan, being very, and gradually more and more, obsessed with the genuine cult of the self (whether part of the 'Me' era and generation or a purer, higher concern than what's now often seen as the time of greed, or the time for the development of greed). The genuine cult of the self has since become lost in the ingenuine, aimless anti-cult cult of the self pretending still to be a true, pure cult of the self. This modern, much more unfortunate reality, can appear like a certain American TV series involving a plane crash that went on and on and on - seemingly endlessly and without aim - as much as it was incomprehensible.

Now, in this post Lost age, an absolutely out and out, down and out, lost age which even yet still pretends we are allied to the genuine cult of self, there returns an obsession with a kind of personality cult (back since its diminution in the early 80s). This modern revision of the era of glam rock etcetera personality cults comes within the ingenuine cult of the self pretending to be a pure cult of self - in pretend obsessions with any and every empty cultural phenomenon instead of troubadors or minstrels in music. Pretend you like it. Just pretend. Don't mean it, naturally. (Just what did Bowie, Glitter and so on bring about?)

[How strange that Groove Armada suddenly insert the Blade Runner syth theme by Vangelis into their BBC mix I'm listening to as I write, at the very instant when I'm typing to describe this modern era in popular culture. I used to imagine the Blade Runner world could have pretend obsessions particularly made instead of music, for the masses to practise or merely enjoy their unparticular fauning on or something. But nicely. if that's possible, nicely - however personally misguided.Not with music that, if examined truly, is so unlikely to spawn any such attributable personality cults. -I remember from the early 90s, I liked very much Blade Runner and imagined I loved the world of Blade Runner. (Groove Armada 6 Mix, 15.03.2013, available free in].

In the post Lost age, even the good parts are defined by obsession with cultural phenomeons, making personality cults where possible, whether that be Bowie, Daft Punk or the constant recycling of The Rolling Stones, or a new boy band too insignificant in terms of what real culture means to actually listen to properly. (Unless you're 11 years old, maybe female, also for males, and just find attraction in the 'youth' spirit and energy of the age alone, regardless of what they do.) The latter is the more usual face of this fake era of pretend obsessions instead of music - from Lady Gaga to Perry, Eminem, Minaj, Beiber, things appear back with the obsessive cultural phenomenae of the era of Bowie and glam. But is there really anything serious in there now at all? Beyond the money and people somehow screaming at nothing, or to these ears, less than zero - whether they can control it or not?

Natalie Haynes mentions her era was that of Under Pressure, the Bowie collaboration with so-called rock gods Queen and that, that being the "worst of Bowie" and the "worst of Queen", she missed the opportunity to know the real phenomenon, what it had been all about, what it was, what it was like to experience, what it meant.

I felt myself seeing a clear definition of just what Bowie was (and, as said, must still be, this being inextricable), just how abnormal for such huge success in mainstream culture a year or so before he really established himself. Even how abnormal within a type of that time he existed within a clear set of - even though this kind of stance grew rather quickly. I found myself thinking about Haynes's remark that Under Pressure was the worst of both, and couldn't help quickly noting personally that it couldn't be the worst of Queen for me. To these ears Queen made countless abysmal records and their, to me sickening, sheerly attention seeking, theatrical paen in performance is every music hall show too far for me.

However, the point I want to make is that naturally I wondered if  Under Pressure could be the worst of Bowie, and realised there was no answer really. If I were being true to what I saw and felt. With Queen I coudl easily see a catalogue of theatrical musical releases, and subjectively make a preferential analysis that, though I loathed Under Pressure, I could listen to it for maybe 40 seconds before running to switch the radio channel. Where with most other Queen songs, generally this time would be less than a second before my legs would take to the air, running to the radio for as quick a change as possible. But, what Queen were, in essence were musical showmen, yes, performers, songsters, crooners, if you will, still the old minstrels in some way even if they raked around your head with so-called energy and surprise, rather than settled, soothed and inspired it.

Now Bowie. The distinction is it didn't matter with Bowie what it could mean that a song could be the worst of him. (This is not at all suggesting I thought Bowie 'worse' than Queen, far from it.) It made no sense to say Under Pressure could be the worst of Bowie - there was no clear way to see, it meant nothing. Because, from the vantage of decades of relative removal, even though I can appreciate some of his music a lot, that was irrelevant. I couldn't even see him particularly as a musician, distinctly - good, bad or indifferent, a heartfelt performer or nonplussed, genuine nor fake.

No, he's art. Art. (I mean the man in his public work himself, nothing to do with him being an exhibition subject currently.) Art, merely that and even perhaps with him, it's possible for many to cut through the music and see him only as art - performance art as cultural phenomenon.

to be continued ...

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