Oh You Pretty Things: Some Thoughts on Bowie and Culture
On the day I moved out of my parents’ home I walked into the first room I’d ever rented, considered the daunting prospect of the first real job I’d ever struggle to hold down, smoked a cigarette and looked for a CD to play. Whether through design or accident (I can’t actually recall) the first song that came on the chosen disc was ‘Life on Mars?’ It was the first time I’d heard it and listening to it in that moment remains a definitive memory. It was the scope, the excitement, the strangeness and the exhilaration of youth distilled and it was already over 30 years old.
As it happens, I’m not really a proper Bowie fan (I’ve rarely ventured beyond the Ziggy years to be honest). Despite that, the singer’s death has caused me to reconsider that moment 12 years ago. Why did that song and an entire generation’s worth of borrowed music that surrounded it, speak so clearly to me?
It was partly a weird kind of pedantry. At the time I was scornful of anything by almost any artist that was recorded after 1975. The act of rediscovery, of working backwards through music that had already inspired so many, was the overwhelming obsession of my teenage years. I think a big part of the excitement stemmed from the fact that this music was not marketed, labelled or pre-defined as destined for me. I’d had to do the work to seek it out. Fruitless nights were spent trying to sell the merits of the Velvet Underground to those who had let the school common room become a musical desert populated only by skater bands like Blink 182 or Green Day. In borrowing, stealing and occasionally buying tapes, LPs and CDs, I felt that I was tapping into something far more real and authentic. The motherlode of rock and pop music — that unattainable golden era from 1965-75 — was overwhelmingly the object of my searching. I will probably be of the last generation for whom that search involved difficulty, dedication and a slightly unhinged commitment to its importance.
My first exposure to Bowie occurred in the winter of 2004. Only a year before the charts had been clogged up by an insipid re-hash of ‘Mad World’, among the most successful examples of pop recycling in what was already a crowded field. Though it was partly because of a conviction that nothing contemporary to me could be worthwhile: I did get something out of older pop and rock music that was about more than just superiority. The true appeal of the era was its distance. It was doubly escapist due to this strange factor: the music, and therefore the sense of youth and novelty bound up within it, was not my own. It came from a place that I knew I could never get access too. It kept the mysterious elixir of musical creativity so distant that I never really had to test it. Though I still learned the riffs.
Of course, Bowie and his peers were not all dead at the time, but they had never quite grown up either. As a result they had left a substantial chunk of their audience destined to live in a world in which everything was on loop. As though somehow these teenagers, who a public watched become parents, then grandparents, were immortal in their refusal to stop inhabiting the various characters that they chose to conjure up.
The great contradiction with which this generation must grapple — with its incomprehensible access to terabyte upon terabyte of recorded culture — is the death of those who first placed youth at the forefront of artistic expression. The past two decades have often seemed fixated on nostalgia and archive based content, as if to shore up our resilience for the current, inevitability heavy, dose of mortality.
What we have failed to renew, perversely, are the conditions that could lead to the kind of authentic mass youth culture that emerged in the 1960s. It has been imitated, analysed, re-worked, collated, memorialised, mocked, sampled and re-presented, yet we have never returned to the kind of pivotal, founding moments that made the cultural and social revolutions of the second half of the twentieth century possible. However sustained its reverberations have been, they are now fading. The original circumstances — which included near full employment, sexual revolution, mass immigration, the final ending of austerity and the possibility of radical change — have all been neutered, demonised, or sold off by the consumerist order that came to replace them. The baby boomer generation, which could have embedded the ideals of equality and liberation, were instead content to bite the bullet of counter-revolution. Many, having acquired a tidy fortune along the way, weren’t that fussed at how easily the ladder fell behind them.
The cultural consequences of this (septuagenarian) youth culture, now becoming canonised as history and myth, remain profound. There are still millions to be made from making music, despite the inevitable squeeze that the mp3 has added to its always problematic economies of scale. Like the guitars that have adorned the posters of so many teenage bedrooms, the stadium ticket is a collector’s item for those in wealthy middle age. There were times when I felt that I might actually kill for the chance to possess the right brand of guitar: little did I realise that ownership of the accoutrements of youth was now something to be bought into retrospectively. You didn’t have to take the risk of wearing unwashed clothes, experimenting with drugs or exposing a nascent creative urge anymore. You just had to get a salary, some property and the dream could be realised as a fulfilling part-time hobby.
Clearly we have lost the faith that allowed for original, strange and remarkable expression to take place as a mass pursuit. When it comes to creativity we have become strongly risk averse as a society and unwilling to subsidise or tolerate the explorative character of adolescence. It would scarcely be possible for a young, but conspicuously talented, working class Londoner to try (and for the most part fail) at making music for the best part of a decade in 2016. Everything would militate against it. Yet that’s how long it took Bowie to breakthrough. An epoch away from the cheap post-modern branding of ‘Cool Britannia’ — the arrival of Rock n Roll records from across the Atlantic met with a unique and unprecedented reaction. Placed into the hands of newly confident local boys (for the most part) there was only one incentive — to remake this music that tingled with their every teenage urge into something they could call their own.
In a much more uprooted society, musical success is now largely premised on being exceptionally boring, at least that’s the only explanation I can think of to explain Mumford and Sons or Coldplay. On top of that the Etonificaiton of access to culture has come home to roost. If you want to make music, or art of any kind anywhere in modern Britain, a trust fund or a superhuman tolerance for drudgery is a necessary passport. Talented proles today must live a kind of purgatory: condemned to an eternal thirst for the magic of stardom. The cruel, gladiatorial contests of reality TV shows are the most gut wrenching demonstration of that. In that format an always seedy industry has found the true measure of its exploitative sadism. How would a twenty-first century Bowie, (armed only with a weird voice, an unusual face and a surrealist impulse) fare if he were to appear in such a world? In a pop culture that craves clones rather than aliens, he would inevitably be laughed off stage for the freak that he was.
Of course heroes still abound, but as the world of fandom has become normalised for all, it has lost its dark but vital tribal energy. An inevitable outcome of living legends is that if we want to watch pensioners shake their hips to rhythm and blues, they must also be watched by legions of adoring, mesmerised, grown-ups swooning at the sight. But this has gone beyond mere nostalgia for the first blossoming of youth culture. It has become part of a wider denial of adulthood, as seen in the infantilism that causes offices full of grown men and women to obsess over the latest Star Wars film, collect toys, worship like teenage girls and pretend to be part-time singer-songwriters (or worse, actually become part time singer-songwriters). This kind of social backdrop brings with it a totalitarian compulsion to have ‘fun’ and be ‘creative’. The demand for originality and self expression suggests that a lack of joyful imagination makes us both incomplete and inadequate: rather than mind-numbingly insufferable evangelists. Yet there is a sadness behind this refusal of seriousness and the love of self-gratification and abstraction — rarely does it manifest in the form of authentic, playful, rebellion intent on shaking up and overturning the rules of the game.
At the end of the day, the injunction that everyone must be youthful isn’t redistributing youthfulness: it is merely robbing youth of its radical, transformative, potential. Bowie, like Dylan, tapped into the idea that re-invention was the key to artistic longevity in an era of mass media. Part of the reason the ploy worked so well is that — far from being an obsessive game of idolising, consuming and collecting — youth is, above all, about a willingness to make it new. The girls and boys drawn to the impossibly sexual, yet sexless, Bowie, saw a character so deeply transgressive their fandom went beyond simple adoration. It became a desire to be changed. This was accompanied by the radical step of playing with the emerging rock star image of ridiculous, preening, masculinity. Bowie did one of the most difficult things any man in the public eye can do, he invited its gaze: not with the muscular torsos expected of princeling millennials, but by looking, universally, incredible.
For the record, I don’t think that youth is a fleeting concept defined by age or circumstance. It’s available to those capable of living accordingly. So I don’t restrict the strange exhilaration ‘Life on Mars?’ provoked in me to something inherent to the age of 17. Rather, what I was feeling, standing in that room, was the terrifying thrill of being on the edge of something new and unknown and of doing, saying and thinking all the things that you’re not supposed to.
Fundamentally, Bowie’s work was about the future. It is the future that we lose when a society has too little to offer its youngest. There may never be another explosion of energy, liberation and creativity to rival the years immediately after Rock n Roll became what today’s hipster parlance would term a ‘thing’. We may never see another generation of artist-icons as significant as those that are now leaving us. As they do so, it is worth considering that part of our attachment to those still living and their inevitable bankability in stadiums and in studios, is also the result of fear. A fear that whatever might be thought up today will probably be derivative or less authentic. A fear that our imaginations are exhausted simply by inhabiting a world so full of colour and noise. A fear of making it new, of countercultures and of all the freakiest shows that pose the most unexpected questions. Overcoming that fear would be a far better tribute to the pioneers of youth culture than yet more memorials and nostalgia. Because, at the end of the day, we will be worshiping a generation who were mostly working class kids afforded the space, the opportunities and the collective confidence to be different.