So I started writing a review of David Bowie’s Blackstar at about 10 PM on Sunday night. I listened to the whole thing, made my notes, picked out songs that leaped out at me immediately. I got a couple paragraphs in and then went to bed, planning to finish it the next night, but the album really struck me. In a manner that his 2013 comeback album The Next Day was not, Blackstar was shocking to me in all sorts of good ways: brilliantly orchestrated, impeccably written, gorgeously produced, and breaking some fascinating new ground for Bowie. I was excited to finish that review and could tell already that this record will be up there once the “Album of the Year” lists start getting rolled out – high praise for a record that came out in the second week of the new year.
The next morning, the first thing I learned was that Bowie had passed away. Which makes commenting on Blackstar at all–let alone reviewing it–a little surreal. One day I’m examining the album in the context of an aging but incredibly significant artist on a comeback run, and the next I am forced to look at it as the last artistic outing, the last public divulgence of musical and emotional expression, of a then-dying, now-dead man. I suspect Bowie fought his cancer with the vigor that those close to him claim he did not just for the obvious reason of remaining on this plane with his friends and family and fans, but also to make sure he could see this album released, a swan song of sorts.
But I’m also not terribly interested in looking at Blackstar as being defined by Bowie’s death, or vice versa. Certainly Bowie is grappling with mortality and legacy and the big things that a massively influential and beloved celebrity, as well as an average human being, might grapple with as they near the end of their lives. On the other hand, statements from Tony Visconti indicate that Bowie had every intention of making more music when the cancer finally caught up with him. But whether Bowie had died the day before Blackstar’s release or several years on, I firmly believe that the record is a stunning artistic victory regardless, and I’ll leave it to someone else (for CisternYard, the talented Luke Bradley) to approach the record from a critical perspective, and untangle the intertwining implications of the record’s concept and Bowie’s passing.
Instead, I’d like to reflect on just why David Bowie is so bloody important, from a musical and historical perspective. Certainly the outpouring of grief, reflection, and tribute that occurred on Monday should indicate that there was something particularly special about Bowie and what he did during his lengthy career that spoke to so many people. Perhaps it was his brilliant capacity for aesthetic and sonic reinvention while maintaining his own voice. Everyone from shock-rocker Marilyn Manson to new wave darling Elvis Costello to part-time rapper, full-time meme Kanye West is able to thrive in a space that Bowie pioneered, a space where popular musicians are capable of changing and adapting to suit their artistic interests and have it remain commercially viable. From hippie-dippie folk to heavy metal, from pop rock to glam-tinged protopunk, from “plastic soul” to krautrock and experimental electronics, Bowie had an extraordinary ability to play around with genre. Not every outing was successful, critically or commercially, nor was every outing motivated by pure artistic intention (much of his mid-to-late 80s output lacked both quality and artistic integrity, and it showed), but at the very least Bowie demonstrated a drive to not stagnate, to always be either pushing the envelope of what music could do or at least to be up to date with what music was. That Blackstar is an arty electronic-jazz record inspired by To Pimp a Butterfly and The Money Store, featuring a 9-minute intro but still clocking in at under 50 minutes, is entirely appropriate.
Or perhaps it is Bowie’s appeal to the misfits, the bizarre, and the Other that cemented his legacy: Let’s Dance may be his best-selling record, but even a cursory look at the reactions to his death should indicate that “pop star” is not the Bowie guise with the most cultural staying power. No, it’s the messianic, faux-Nietzschean freak who wrote heady, conceptual songs about science fiction and outcasts. There’s “Space Oddity” of course, but then there’s Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust. The moment at the climax of Ziggy closer “Rock’n’Roll Suicide” where he belts out “You’re not alone!” (along with much of his weirdness-minded 70s output) would have been striking to any dissatisfied music listener at the time – an era where what we now lovingly refer to as “dad-rock” was particularly offsetting to some audiences, disco was soaring into the mainstream, and the optimism of the 1960s began to sour into 1970s cynicism as a result of the Vietnam War, the collapse of the peace movement, Watergate, and the ascension of contemporary conservatism in the U.S. and U.K.
Which brings me to why I really like and mourn David Bowie, although the reasons above are tremendously important to me as well. I suspect that I lack the gut-reaction attachment to Bowie that many “classic rock” aficionados have, not being particularly drawn to that period of music. No, I really appreciate Bowie, the man and musician, as a progenitor of punk and post-punk in his willingness to break the rules and promote those that he respected and idolized. Though Bowie was not the “founder” of punk rock, nor would I strictly classify him as a “protopunk” artist, he managed to catapult the stylings of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, and the subcultures that surrounded their respective bands, a little deeper into the mainstream than they otherwise would have been. Bowie took the theatrics and quasi-nihilism of The Stooges and New York Dolls and the artistry and experimentation of The Velvet Underground, rolled it up with some other rock and folk and soul influences, and churned out some consistently fascinating records through the 70s and early 80s, that managed to be as catchy as standard pop or hard rock but as intricately detailed and conceptual as progressive rock.
There are certainly many more reasons I could explore for what makes David Bowie an icon, if not a hero (just for one day). For instance, I haven’t even touched on his bulge in the movie Labyrinth. But as far as I can tell, there is no musician alive who is truly analogous to Bowie. The world of music is better for having had him in it, and his presence as a tastemaker, trendsetter, and musical darling will be sorely missed.
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