David Bowie: Why do we care so much about the ever-evolving artist?
As a new album is released and a V&A retrospective opens, we look back on the pop legend's career
There’s a telling scene in Shut Up and Play the Hits, the recent documentary of the last days of LCD Soundsystem, following James Murphy’s decision to split the band at the height of their success. US talk show host Stephen Colbert gives him a playful ‘What the hell were you thinking?’ talk for walking away from rock star fame, but further interviews with Murphy during the film are so littered with David Bowie references that it becomes clear that this deliberate, sudden change goes beyond something he deems necessary for a better future. This is Murphy’s version of killing off Ziggy Stardust. When Bowie retired his breakthrough alter-ego at a 1973 farewell concert at the Hammersmith Odeon, it was merely the first of several reinventions in a career that has since become defined by them.
As encouraging as it is to imagine others taking inspiration from David Bowie’s hopscotch career trajectory – jumping off bandwagons as others jump on or, in collaborator Brian Eno’s words, ‘ducking the momentum of a successful career’ – the reality is that for most artists, success is the biggest argument against exploring territory other than their current one.
Sure, doing more of whatever works might seem to make sense in the short-term, but eclecticism can be a cannier move; reach a whole new audience, while retaining your loyal fanbase: so the theory goes. It’s an approach that’s worked for Bowie, whose career is now lengthy enough at 49 years to have influenced several generations of artists.
The gushing Bowie-love on Twitter that met out-of-the-blue track ‘Where Are We Now?’ – dubbed by one user as ‘an elaborate way to apologise for not performing at the Olympics’ – was a reminder of his sizeable presence in our cultural consciousness.
Historically, one reason that any new Bowie music has always been an event, despite his career-defining tracks being recorded years before many of his fans were born, is because it always promises to be different. His shifting sources of inspiration and ever-changing line-up of collaborators are two of many reasons behind a vibrant diversity of output arguably unmatched in pop music, an artform he’s often credited with bringing sophistication to. For biographer David Buckley, the essence of Bowie’s contribution is ‘his outstanding ability to analyse and select ideas from outside the mainstream – from art, literature, theatre and film – and to bring them inside, so that the currency of pop is constantly being changed.’
Citing broad, cultured reference points might be compulsory for your discerning art-rocker these days, but how many follow through on them to the extent Bowie has? A self-confessed ‘fan’, he’s also seemingly not content to leave it at that. His use of fashion as an integral part of his work is celebrated in the upcoming V&A retrospective, featuring iconic work by designers and photographers Masayoshi Sukita and Kansai Yamamoto. He’s also had a healthier painting career than many who call themselves painters, with dozens of exhibitions filled with work that commands respectable prices.
Well-known for introducing theatrical elements into his live shows, he’s no tourist there either, having trained with acclaimed mime choreographer Lindsay Kemp in 1969 and played the title role in The Elephant Man on Broadway in 1980. Similarly, his screen acting CV includes lead parts with directors Nic Roeg in The Man Who Fell to Earth, Tony Scott in The Hunger and Nagisa Oshima in Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, and everyone has their personal favourite of his countless cameos.
Of course, his journey to icon status might just be down to luck and timing. Like many artists who rose to prominence between the mid-60s and the 90s, his career has fallen within the arc of popular music’s own coming-of-age and at a time when probably more significance than is appropriate began being assigned to pop music and the artists behind it. Certainly, the pop world that produced Bowie and other Mojo cover star ‘heritage’ acts doesn’t exist anymore in the fragmented music landscape of today. Yet, his influence is everywhere.
Perversely, nobody has worked harder than Bowie himself to combat this tendency to over-mythologise, preferring to confound rather than simply meet audience expectations, especially when engaging with his own back catalogue. It’s not always successful – few fans would consider his 1996 jungle reworking of The Man Who Sold the World as essential – but the spirit of innovation is a permanent fixture. Even the front cover of new album The Next Day – essentially a one-minute MS Paint makeover of 1977’s Heroes sleeve – references dealing with the past, and perhaps the inability of others to let him progress beyond his.
Despite decades of hits behind him, Bowie has never traded opportunistically on former glories and has always made a point of having something new to say. As explored at length in Simon Reynolds’ Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past, a glance at any live music listings will attest to the popularity of ‘legacy’ acts, often (but not always) authenticated by members of the original line-up, who are prisoners of both their own back catalogue and their audience’s expectation that they hear the hits from it their own way.
In fact, perhaps Bowie’s success and our ongoing affection for him best illustrates that we crave the very opposite of this comfort for the familiar. Even when we think we want more of the same, what we might actually desire is something completely different.
’David Bowie is’, a retrospective of Bowie’s career opens at the V&A, London, Sat 23 Mar. Bowie’s new album The Next Day is out Mon 11 Mar. Filmhouse, Edinburgh presents ‘Planet Bowie’, with screenings of Bowie films, including The Hunger, Labyrinth and Christiane F from 10 Mar–4 Apr.