As everyone mourned and celebrated the life of David Bowie last week, I couldn’t help but consider one nagging feeling. Adopting a character as an expression of art is all but dead.
I draw on Bowie not simply because of his recent death, but his incredible life, and multifaceted career spanning several generations, signposted by his elusive and multiple personas. Music culture in particular, from the 50s with Elvis, to The Beatles and Hendrix in the 60s was defined by these leading musicians that effectively characterised the given decade and the facade of their own stage persona. Bowie mused over this in an interview with Jeremy Paxman in 1999, in which he later predicted the pending rise of the internet would revolutionise the artist and audience relationship, dispelling the room for mystery.
Sound and vision
So, is the internet and its birth child, social media, subverting the ‘character’ as an art form? Could it be that popular entertainment ‘talent’ shows have drained all credible originality from the music and entertainment scene? The demystification between the artist and audience induced by social media, allows us to intrusively ‘keep-tabs’ on the said artist, to the point where we now think we know them. Thus their characterisation is futile and no longer shocking.
Hit comedy Extras, centres on this absurd notion. It serves to illustrate the exaggerated, inverted parody of celebrities’ famous public personas. Co-writer, Ricky Gervais explains,
‘we didn’t just get people who are famous, or even megastars, they have to have something to deconstruct’.
Even when appearing as himself, Bowie perfectly constructs a ‘David Bowie’character, and his compelling and hilarious performance, singles him out as a great comic actor, as well as musician.
After a decade of limited success, Bowie shocked the nation, with his first appearance as Ziggy Stardust, on Top of the Pops in 1972. This flamboyant, otherworldly alien became Bowie’s defining alter ego. Initially,
‘a very simplistic thing, […] for performance value, I dressed him and acted him out. I left him at that. But other people […] contributed more information about Ziggy than I’d put into him’.
He went further to say he was even happy to ‘shake him off’ as ‘people related more to him than to David Bowie’. –
It is a kind of cruel irony that he had to abandon the very image that propelled him into stratospheric stardom, staggeringly just a year into the character. He states he initially adopted a character in order to defy those who were adamant on putting him into a category, to give him space to work in. Perhaps now, in an age of racial, sexual, and gender-based progressive acceptance, the music industry is perhaps more open. Bowie is credited with having made homosexuality ‘fashionable’. Probably not the correct term, but Bowie nevertheless, provided an outlet for the experimenting, sexually-confused adolescent, in a post-war, economic recession-riddled Britain.
But what was it about this strange creature that remains so imprinted on popular imagination 44 years later, when we can hardly remember last year’s X Factor contestants? Cynics might suggest it was a matter of ‘good timing’. Ziggy subverted all gender norms, sexuality norms, and even British rock music norms, people had never seen anything like him before. While the 1969 space landing undoubtedly had a profound impact on Bowie’s musical influence, notably Space Oddity, of the same year, Bowie’s popularity over the following few decades, suggests it was more than a matter of timing. Bowie was so implicit and invested in the personas, that he maintained character in interview, refusing to appear as himself until later in his career. This pretence, unhindered by the intrusiveness of the internet and social media, and Bowie’s privacy in his personal life helped to keep up this façade. Also, the general zeitgeist of the time made it ‘very hard for anybody to realise that a rock artist […] can be a different person every time they go on stage’. Now, it would seem ‘the artists now accompanies the audience, and the existing movement’.
Even before Ziggy, Bowie was pushing the conceptual boundaries of art, donning a long pre-Raphaelite style dress for his 1970 album, The Man Who Sold the World. It is difficult to comprehend just how shocking this would have been for the time.His striking femininity could have shocked the nation into repulsion and yet instead, his soaring popularity prevailed. The album cover itself looks relatively tame and subtle by today’s standards, perhaps because nothing shocks us anymore? Artists like Gaga and Miley Cyrus almost seem to provide a style without substance. The music simply does not hit the spot, in the same way Bowie’s Life on Mars inspired and continues to inspire, a generation. Described by BBC Radio 2 as, ‘a cross between a Broadway musical and a Salvador Dalí painting’, its melodramatic, melancholy melody shakes to the core every time I hear it played. No artist, perhaps because of their failure to really perform a song, has ever come close since.
I defy anyone who says this was down to a ‘matter of timing’. Arguably there was a vacuum in the music industry at this time, but who else could fill it? He changed the musical narrative of the 20th and even 21st century. His dedication to character performance owes something to this.
Quite simply,he remains even after his death, a true icon, a devastatingly original artist, and a powerful musician.