Emily Bick perceives the collapse of possibilities in the wake of Bowie's death
This is hard to write about, and even harder to come up with something that hasn’t already been said or linked to by people who actually knew him. But Bowie’s gone, and it’s horrible because now we really are in the future, and it’s not the one that his music promised – as a teenager, I’d always hoped that growing up would be full of the kind of drama and art and spectacle of his songs, or at least some kind of hollow-cheeked Weimar sophistication. David Bowie was a hero of the pre-neoliberal world, where privacy and mystery and escape were still possibilities, and that’s what I’m mourning the most.
His music stole from everybody, but was stolen back by everybody else. You could spend years mapping out of all of the back and forth borrowings and tributes between Bowie and western culture in the second half of the 20th century, and it would need to be hundreds of times the size of artist Jeremy Deller’s History Of The World, a wall-sized diagram explaining the workings of UK dance music through the links between acid house and brass bands. A later work of Deller’s made the all-roads-lead-to-Bowie connection direct, with the Melodians Steel Drum Orchestra performing "The Man Who Sold The World".
Mostly, though, all the back and forth operated in an economy of exchanging ideas that was one of the best things about Bowie’s time. Because there was enough of an assumption of material security and a large enough group of young people with disposable income, space for exploration and play with image and style and sexuality began to open up.
No – this wasn’t complete, and wasn’t accessible to everyone; how many Bowie fans got beaten up for acting out, treated to homophobic bullying or worse? Still, Bowie extended the hope that eventually all freaks and weirdos and outsiders could just breathe and do their own thing, stylistically, sonically, whatever. If that exploration began and ended with dressing up as the man himself, as in this wonderful clip of excited American fans from the BBC's Cracked Actor documentary, that was fine too – Bowie offered the possibility of constant change, and with his characters, the idea that image could be an artful expression of identity, but not an authentic, immutable one. Something about Bowie and his masks was freeing.
With so many styles and periods of Bowie, there was something for everyone to stake personal claim to. Behind the mask didn’t matter so much, but it couldn’t hurt that, by many accounts, after the worst of his coke years, Bowie was a genuinely nice, non-diva-ish guy who paid his way into clubs and bought drinks for underlings.
This slippage is lost now that image and identity are so closely welded together in tracked, marketable, personal data. How would any Bowie characters hold up in a world of Instagram preening, tracked against likes and shares, and sneaky paparazzi shots out of costume? And how much can fans play with identity, when even personally selected news feeds are shaped by algorithms that, through subtle and not so subtle goads of advertising targeted to age, race gender and income profiles and filtering of news to promote that day’s corporate bullshit. (An hour after the news of his death broke, Facebook’s ‘trending’ stories panel listed an upcoming tube strike and some London Fashion Week thing as the ‘top stories’, pushing Bowie into third place. Really?)
No one can replace him; even without the digital panopticon, the infrastructure’s just not there for an artist without substantial private funds to have a go in a few styles of novelty beat combo, flirt with acting through appearances in Carnaby-swinging ice cream adverts, and seriously study mime – all before trying on a few more pop personas until each one gained greater traction. (And also the lack of infrastructure, too: imagine what would have happened to the career of a star of Bowie’s calibre, post-surveillance and social media, caught with a fraction of the drugs in his system on any given day in the 70s – or the very underage Lori Lightning. Problematic ain’t the half of it.)
A clip of an interview with Bowie from 2000 has been doing the rounds this morning, because it’s supposed to show how Bowie anticipated how the internet would change everything. He’s excited and intelligent, even in the face of sweaty lump Jeremy Paxman and his smug bluster. From 7:00 to 12:20, Bowie talks about how art will be revolutionised because networked technology connects artists and audiences and allows them to meet “in that grey space in the middle”. This is where the future of art was supposed to be, and again, it didn’t work out that way, because corporates colonised that space first. Still, I miss that optimism and mystique, the lack of information, the ambiguity that allowed for projection and identification (and ripping off, and building new connections). For private dreams and multifaceted communities.
And this is unrelated and in the worst possible taste, but Labyrinth was great and Bowie’s codpiece deserved a supporting actor credit.