Monday, January 11, 2016

speaking from ignorance on david bowie


A friend asked me for my insights on why David Bowie was so monumental.

I'd love to be able to weigh in: unfortunately, I just don't know his stuff. I heard the songs that got popular when I was a teen (like "Let's Dance" and "China Girl"), and was aware that he was connected with stuff that was highly regarded art; over the years I've seen and heard this and that, but just never really sat down and availed myself of his massive body of work. Love to do it sometime, because people I regard well just love him.

It seems to me, from this distance, that he falls into the category occupied by, say, Leonard Cohen, where dazzling skill isn't necessarily the draw as much as an authentic presence that happens to be weird. There's plenty of weirdness that's inauthentic (sometimes entertainingly so, as in Lady Gaga's showpieces or Nicki Minaj's fauvist hair), and plenty of authenticity that's ho-hum (this abounds in folk rock, for instance). But when you find someone who's authentic and weird, and can transmit that vision into a body of art, especially in popular music, which by nature affects people right at their core — teens aren't categorized by their favorite visual artists, for instance, but by their favorite popular musicians — people respond because we often feel that it connects with their own oddness, that part of oneself that can never be reflected in majority pop culture.

We feel that an artist like Bowie is telling the truth about the world, then, in a way that, say, Taylor Swift isn't. (Comparisons of Bowie to Swift might be taken as snarky, but I chose her on purpose: she's a terrific performer who somehow connects with the average listener by affirming her odd-girl-out persona. Song after song is about how she's *not* one of the Taylor Swifts of the world.) Swift's art is, no matter how you slice it, pure majoritarian pop culture: she's a Coca-Cola — incredibly well-done, slick but not nutritious.

Bowie, by contrast, is more like Joss Whedon than Coke: pure pop culture no doubt, but with an off-center-ness that draws in people who are frustrated, or just bored, with what's on the other channel. You can allow yourself to be amazed that such an artist got such traction in the first place. You can phrase it like "The great strength of Bowie is that he'll never play the Super Bowl. He'll never win American Idol." Yet, crucially, he's perfectly terrific, and appealing to a broad audience nonetheless.

Anyway, after all that, I'd love to be able to speak authoritatively about the actual music. It's why we're even talking about him — but it's one of my many large gaps.