March 23, 2009
Can You Hear Me, Major Tom?
by Jeff Strabone
Two famous men known for reinventing themselves have spent most of this decade in hiding: Osama bin Ladin and David Bowie. Away from the public eye, Bin Ladin has been busy releasing mixtapes of varying quality over the past few years, but Bowie not so much. Bin Ladin's listeners, at the CIA and around the world, are very devoted to his work: no matter the content or the production values, they really get into each of his new releases and perform close readings in order to make sense of the man and his œuvre. Bowie has his share of fans, too, myself included, who stand ready to parse his latest offerings, but he has not released a new album in almost six years. I think it's time he came out of his cave and faced the music. Aside from a handful of guest appearances with everyone from TV on the Radio to Scarlett Johanson, Bowie has been missing in action as a recording artist since September 2003 when he released his latest album Reality.
My friend Daniel F has suggested that it's far better for Bowie to wait out a potential creative dry spell than to make bad music. I intend to argue the exact opposite: that it is far better for a great artist to make bad work than to make no work. Yes, you read that right: I am demanding more bad art. And in Bowie's particular case, I hope to convince you to join me in asking him to get off the couch and release some new music, no matter how good or bad it may turn out to be.
The premise of my argument is that some artists make more than their work: they make themselves. Part of their art is to generate mythology about their personas. They invent and reinvent themselves as characters that are just as meaningful as anything they write or sing or paint or perform. Like the living sculptures Gilbert and George, some artists are living art.
The idea of the personality as an æsthetic object goes back at least to Walter Pater's Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873). In the preface, Pater wrote:
'The objects with which aesthetic criticism deals—music, poetry, artistic and accomplished forms of human life—are indeed receptacles of so many powers or forces: they possess, like the products of nature, so many virtues or qualities. What is this song or picture, this engaging personality presented in life or in a book, to me? What effect does it really produce on me? Does it give me pleasure? and if so, what sort or degree of pleasure? How is my nature modified by its presence, and under its influence?'
Pater's student Oscar Wilde put the idea into practice.
Pop music of the past several decades has been a gallery of artful personalities whose legends the public devotes its analytical skills to interpreting. Elvis Presley, Yoko Ono, Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna may or may not be great musical artists, but they have all made their lives the foundations of modern mythologies. Bob Dylan has reinvented himself so many times that it took a company of actors to portray him in Todd Haynes's brilliant film I'm Not There (2007). But before casting Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger et al. to play Dylan, Haynes made a tribute film called Velvet Goldmine (1999), dedicated to the most restless self-mythologizer of all, David Bowie.
Bowie's reinventions over the years have reflected their times, which makes one want to know all the more how this chameleon man would respond to the wars, terrors, and fears of the age of Bush, and now Obama. We do have the record of his creative response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. At Madison Square Garden on October 20, 2001, he performed two songs at the live benefit known as the Concert for New York City. The second song was 'Heroes', which makes a certain kind of sense if one neglects the original Berlin setting of the song. The first song was the standout: a simple, minimalist, moving interpretation of Simon and Garfunkel's 'America' on a Suzuki Omnichord. Here is the video, which I encourage you to watch. One can only wish that the performance's tone of simple modesty had been more widespread in those trying times. What has Bowie made of events before and since then?
To answer that question, I am going to propose my own periodization of Bowie's career with the intention of focusing on the 1980's: the Reagan and Thatcher years, which I deem a bad decade for Bowie. If you share my dissatisfaction with Bowie's 80's output, then we can use the decade as a test case to answer the original question: is it better for a great artist to make bad art or no art?
First period, the 1960's (1964 to 1968): The young Bowie worked his way through other people's styles on his early singles and self-titled first album.
Second period, the 1970's (1969 to 1980): The golden years of relentless reinvention, restless exploration, and prolific output, framed by Space Oddity and Scary Monsters.
Third period, the 1980's (1983 to 1988): Bowie made middling to bad albums that at first approached the era of excess with a touch of danceable irony and later succumbed to its worst features.
Fourth period, the 1990's (1989 to 2000): Collaborating with Reeves Gabrels, Bowie first stripped away the accretions of the 1980's and then built up new and better ones by experimenting with popular genres and ideas of the 90's.
Now, the 2000's: Just two albums followed by almost six years of radio silence.
There is not much that we can say about Bowie's music in this nearly-over decade. Heathen (2002) is as good an album as he had made since 1980, but it is stifling to try to make critical statements about non-output. So let's go back to those albums, some dreadful, of the 80's and see what they allow us to do: Let's Dance (1983), Tonight (1984), the Labyrinth soundtrack (1986), and the accidentally ironically titled Never Let Me Down (1987). As bad as some of these albums are, they provide essential meaning to the rest of Bowie's work and his mythology, and they challenge us to try to imagine how he could have made these records in the first place. They are as worth thinking about, although not listening to on a regular basis (or at all in the case of Never Let Me Down), as the rest of his œuvre. (Similarly, Dylan's born-again Christian albums, Saved (1980) especially, are disdained by many of his fans, who nevertheless do love to talk about them, and the period is an essential part of the myth of Dylan.)
So, two claims then about Bowie's bad music of the 80's: it gives essential shape to the rest of his work, and it provides exegetical challenges that help us read the mythology. In my periodization above, I placed Scary Monsters at the end of the second period because it provides an explicit closure to the themes and personal demons that haunted Bowie in the 70's. The song 'Ashes to Ashes' revisits the character Major Tom from 'Space Oddity' as an alter ego for Bowie. When we first met him in 1969, he had taken off for outer space where he found himself 'floating in a most peculiar way'. Bowie subsequently took up residence on Mars as Ziggy Stardust, fell to Earth in a Nicolas Roeg film, wound up in Berlin feeling Low, and ended the decade in self-elegy:
Ashes to ashes,
Funk to funky,
We know Major Tom's a junkie,
Strung out in heaven's high,
Hitting an all-time low.
Aside from the five-song soundtrack EP from his BBC production of Brecht's Baal (the only Bowie album I do not have—help me somebody!), his three-year absence from the recording studio makes sense. Scary Monsters was the end of an era, an addiction, and an abyss. He hit the all-time low and was going to start over.
We can see that quite brightly in his next album, Let's Dance, which is unlike anything that preceded it. There is nothing scary or monstrous about an imperative to dance. Bowie, lyrically and visually, is the star of a new set of stories, none of them directly about him. We see him in the music videos from the album dressed in an immaculate yellow suit ('Modern Love'), ironically (one hopes) playing with vaguely colonial Orientalist tropes ('China Girl'), and impassively observing the contradictions of Western consumerism that indigenous Australians face ('Let's Dance').
There appears to be some very stylized critique running through some of this material, but Bowie himself is the one wearing the suit, and we know how his identities tend to take on a life of their own. Here is another image of Bowie in the crisp yellow suit and bowtie. It is from the widely aired 'Coffee Achiever' television ad campaign of 1984, sponsored by the National Coffee Association. The cocaine achiever of the 70's had become the coffee achiever of the 80's. (I can't help but think that Cicely Tyson appears in the ad as a stand-in for that other great cocaine-achieving musician of the 70's, her husband Miles Davis.) Being clean from cocaine is surely a good thing, but I wonder about men in suits and suspenders who are obsessed with achievement in the 1980's. Was Bowie adopting the æsthetics and values of Reaganism?
The albums got worse and worse—to say nothing of the fact that the other half of Let's Dance is utterly forgettable—until the aforementioned Never Let Me Down, which even Bowie acknowledges as his absolute worst. The Wikipedia entry for the album quotes him as saying:
'I know that everything I do is really heartfelt. Even if it's a failure artistically, it doesn't bother me in the same way that Never Let Me Down bothers me. I really shouldn't have even bothered going into the studio to record it.'
That is where we differ. The material excess of the 80's that Bowie fell for once he fell into the yellow suit is part of the legend, as is the dramatic musical break that followed it. This is how Jon Pareles in the New York Times for August 2, 1987 described Bowie's Glass Spider tour:
'Under the dangling legs of a huge (60 feet high by 64 feet wide), translucent spider, Mr. Bowie, a five-piece band and five dancers will present stadium-scale, rock-driven, imagistic music theater, the most ambitious effort yet from rock's most self-conscious actor. […] To tour the United States, two identical setups, each costing more than $10 million and weighing 360 tons, are leapfrogging one another so that the show can go on two or three times a week. A third setup is currently being built. The payroll for the tour involves 150 people (including performers, construction crew, electronics specialists and 40 truck drivers) and adds up to about $1 million a week.'
That ridiculous spectacle brought about its own demise, and Bowie's subsequent revolt against it directly led to the third period, which began in 1989 with the pared-down, spartan-rocking sound of Tin Machine, where Bowie was just a member of the band.
The band wore business suits on the album cover, but the simple image strikes me as less about the dress code of the Reagan years than about getting back to the business of making rock music. Bowie had gone so far beyond the yellow suit and sound of Let's Dance that a course correction—another reinvention—had become necessary. By 1987, it was clear that Major Tom had joined the Reagan Revolution. I think we preferred him as a junkie.
Say what you will about the merits of Tin Machine, but their unfancy sound and arrangements were as explicit an artistic statement against the 80's and Never Let Me Down in particular as the yellow suit was a turn away from the 70's. The Tin Machine direction makes sense to us because we know what choices led to it. All the bad Bowie music of the 80's thus helps us understand the rest of his work.
In a way, Tin Machine was a pre-grunge reaction to aspects of the 80's not unlike Nirvana's cleansing effect on the bad-hair rock of the 80's. 1987 was such an artistically awful time for Bowie, I would argue, because he had adopted an 80's-specific theatricality of excess that was based on intellectual and ethical premises that he did not share. That is why Never Let Me Go lacks conviction. But that question—why is it so bad?—is a question that we can ask only because the album exists. We cannot ask these questions of work that does not exist. That sounds obvious, but the ramifications are important. Even bad art gives us interpretive work to do: how do we explain its place in the artist's œuvre and in his mythology?
What can Burt Bacharach's fans say about the twenty-one album-less years between Future (1977) and Painted from Memory (1998)? Silence. And that's saying nothing of the fact that even a bad Bacharach song (are there any?) is better than most people's best. And now the story continues. Whatever one thinks of Bacharach's collaborations with Dr. Dre on At This Time (2005), it's certainly something to talk about.
What if Bowie were to make an album as bad as Never Let Me Go in 2009? I would say, bring it on. It's time to smoke him out of his cave. Just make the music, David, and let us make sense of it. Give us the material that will generate the exegetical work on our part. And add another twist to your narrative of the restless reinventor. If it's bad, perhaps the album after that will help us understand why.
Sometimes people have less to say than at other times, but what good is six years of artistic silence? I would rather see a great artist make bad art, if that's all that he or she can do at the time, because even bad art by a great artist is preferable to none. So let bad art proliferate. I will welcome it and interpret it just as keenly as good art, perhaps even more so.
Posted by Jeff Strabone at 12:25 AM | Permalink