Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Duking it out : the Bowie phenomenon

A couple of days ago I did something a bit uncharacteristic - I fired off a post on my TWW Facebook page about David Bowie.  Usually I think so long and carefully about things before I post, I either never get round to posting at all, or by the time I'm ready, everyone has moved on.

Perhaps it was a tad insensitive of me to post critical comments about Bowie while people who admired or adored him were still reeling from the news of his death - however unsurprising that death might have been in light of his age and having been a 50+ a day smoker for most of his life, an enthusiastic ingester of cocaine and alcohol for a good few years, and having had several heart attacks. 

The emotional reverberations from the death of some people is an interesting phenomenon. People who did not know the dead person except as a media construct, experience an very real and at times overpowering sense of loss. Anyone who was in the UK when Princess Diana died will tell you that you could almost feel the emotion - it was spooky. And there wasn't social media to blame that on. 

With someone like David Bowie, the intensity of emotion and deep sense of loss is all the more odd because the way all those mourners knew or could ever hope to know him - i.e. via photos, films, videos, recordings - remains with them. The means of 'knowing' him and feeling connected to him is as real as it was when he was alive with the one exception of live concerts.   Bowie was even so obliging as to spend his last few months making an album to mark his passing. In so doing he played the part to the end - as some have breathlessly claimed, he 'made a performance of his own death'. What a man, what an artist. 

We're left pondering the extent to which Bowie was acting a part or really believed in the pop star myth he'd created. Well, a few of us are pondering  - it seems the majority of people of a certain age in the over-developed world are being carried along by an irresistible current of emotion and are for the moment at least, incapable of serious reflection.

I've had to take a break from Twitter because the spectacle of usually acerbic and irreverent people (men mainly) being maudlin and reverential was putting me at risk of saying something I might later regret.

Philip Matthews is a journalist and avid tweeter who has been very open about his adulation of Bowie.  Matthews is capable of being a very outspoken and sometimes quite harsh critic of certain people - the so-called Twitterati - and has been known to take up cudgels in defence of the right to be politically incorrect. He retweeted a link to a piece  which revisits some under-age sex issues reported about Bowie's early years that Bowie's fans and PR people would rather see consigned to the dustbin of history. 

James Robins5h
 I thought we were flagging  these days

The tweet and the reply are a bit coded but the way I read that exchange is that the abuse of girls barely out of puberty by rich and powerful men is excusable if those rich and powerful men are your cultural heroes - like film director Roman Polanski who still faces historic child sexual abuse charges in the USA.  I never asked for clarification, for fear of sparking off the sort of Twitter firefight that no-one ever wins but which always results in a lot of collateral damage - but I think I read it right.

I doubt that either of these two intelligent and well informed men would excuse the conduct of the likes of Garry Glitter or Jimmy Saville, but the fact is that rich and famous men having sex with girls barely out of puberty, even if the girls 'consented', is at the same end of the consensual sex continuum - the wrong end. 

We might of course consider the unhinging effects, on young men, of drugs and fame and  being involved in an exploitative industry which, with the aid of the parasitic enterprises that feed off it,  encouraged and condoned hedonistic, self-indulgent and abusive behaviour - and still does. 

That may help explain but it doesn't excuse and anyone who wants to forgive their heroes for fucking impressionable young girls, needs to ask themselves whether they are prepared to extend that forgiveness to all powerful, rich men who choose to have sex with girls or boys barely out of puberty. There's no standing on the high moral ground over the likes of the Roast Busters if you're prepared to exempt your personal heroes from worse conduct.

I worked in inner city London in the mid 1970s. I was young and a feminist and angry about a lot of things - none more so than the sexualisation and sexual exploitation of girls and very young women. I'm old now, still a feminist and still angry.

I don't know if the reports of 26 year-old Bowie having sex with under-age girls as young as 13 are true. To my knowledge he never denied it, and he was immersed in a milieu that was pushing the boundaries of what was permissible. 

The notion of 'free love', the existence of female contraception and penicillin, the coming out into the open of gay sex, the blurring and blending of gender and a fascination with androgyny within a milieu and a wider culture that was still profoundly phallocratic - all meant it was a small step for rich and powerful men to see skinny little star-struck girls barely out of puberty as sex objects. 

It's obvious that the imposition of an arbitrary age at which a person can consent to have sex is problematic. It's at its most absurd in the USA where the legal age of consent varies between states and the charge of statutory rape can be used unfairly and oppressively. Chronologically based age limits cannot take account of differential development or of personal choice but problematic though they are, we have to impose some limits.

I had a colleague in the 1970s who ran a community arts centre- a flow on from the Arts Labs movement - who advocated the legalisation of sex with minors and supported his views with theories about the innate sexuality of children and the advantages to kids of learning about sex from a caring adult -like him. It would be unthinkable for a person with those attitudes to work with young children in our current climate of fear and loathing of the actual and imagined activities of criminal paedophiles but, at that time he - and he was not alone - felt free to expound and probably to act on his belief that, as children are sexual beings, it was ok for adults like him to have consensual sex with them.  

On the question of power differentials of age, gender and class and on the issue of exploitation, he was strangely silent. But therein lies another discussion.

I was also anti-racist and I saw, up close and personally, the rise of the extreme Right and the effects of anti-immigrant rhetoric and action on the community I worked in. So, when massively influential 'working class heroes' like Bowie and Eric Clapton publicly flirted with fascism, I didn't see it as just some youthful, drug-fuelled high-jinks. 

I liked Clapton as a musician but I damned him for his public statements in support of Enoch Powell at a time when the extreme Right was working hard to recruit kids who admired and were influenced by musicians such as him. I felt the same about Bowie's flirtation with fascism because he was hugely influential among a very wide range of young people. His fling with fascism is downplayed by his supporters and he attributed it to the effects of drugs and becoming immersed in the Thin White Duke persona.  I think that may well be a post-hoc rationalisation, and in vino veritas might equally be cited.

If I'd really liked Bowie's music I might have forgiven him his early transgressions as it was clear that he did move on and he did express regret about at least some of them. I just never saw him as a part of my life - for all his theatricality and flair and gender bending - he was too mainstream, and his music was too white and too poppy for my taste.

I accept that he was a hugely successful and prolific writer and singer of pop songs - i.e. songs created for a popular audience and within the formats imposed by the corporations which produce and market them as hugely profitable commodities. But he didn't have a great voice and only people who have never listened to really great voices could think that he did. 

What he did have and had in spades was the ability to catch a musical and style wave as it was forming and ride it so well and so confidently that he was widely credited with being the originator of it. And he knew when to get off a spent wave and catch another that was forming.

From a young age he'd been determined to be a pop star, not to be just a musician but to have the fame and money that only pop stardom brings, and he pursued that aim by voraciously gobbling up influences and ideas from others. From Gary Kemp's European theatre and mime to Kabuki; from bits of African-American rock and soul to so-called Krautrock; from the Velvet Underground and Iggy Pop to Marc Bolan and Glam Rock….he borrowed and synthesised, and presented it as his own with characteristic flair and aplomb. And ruthlessness. He could be quite ruthless in pursuit of his ambition and he is being hailed as an astute and calculating businessman who foresaw and benefited from the changes that the internet forced on the music industry.  The truth is he listened to someone who foresaw those changes and who knew how to benefit from them. 

I tweeted that, if David Bowie's final album was indeed a 'final gift to his fans' then he should have arranged to give it away -  his estate could well afford it. Typically that tweet sank without anyone registering its existence but the fact is that, as with any celebrity, Bowie's death is a very rich harvest - from sales of the newly released album and the back catalogue, the making of TV specials, the writing of books and the staging of memorial concerts.  

Surely even the most blinkered and addle-pated of Bowie fans realises that, behind all the glitz, the glamour, the hype and the crocodile tears, are cold and often pretty ugly commercial realities. The popular music business is, in the final analysis, all and only about money, and the edifice rests on the shaky foundation of novelty. Bowie's greatest gift was his ability to keep being novel. 

Occasionally novelty and true genius combine but, very often in the music business the truly gifted go largely unremarked, uncelebrated and unrewarded while the mediocre are elevated to the level of greatness and rewarded beyond any sensible measure. This is not to say Bowie was mediocre but to ask, was he truly that great? 

I was reminded of the fact that fame, fortune and talent are not always congruent and the fact that fame is a precarious and often ephemeral thing when I was talking to young person about Bowie's death. I was musing that, given Bowie's love of word play, his Thin White Duke persona was a nod to both the dapper, white, fascist Duke -of Windsor, and the dapper, black Duke - Ellington. She looked bemused and said she'd never heard of the Duke of Wellington.


1 comment:

  1. An excellent, and balanced, post on this over-rated poseur, who has been dominating the "serious" media ever since his death. I was alerted to this article, and your blog, by the abbreviated version of the piece that appeared in today's 'Morning Star' (a publication I am not in 100% political sympathy with, btw). Two questions: (1) Can I re-blog this post, with a link and full acknowledgement, at my blog 'Shiraz Socialist'/ (2)I'd like to add a link to you on 'Shiraz', but would like to know more about your underlying politics: would you please give me some info on this? You can contact me offline, if you'd prefer, at