Thursday, July 31, 2014

Where is he now? A bit on Bowie and a "review" in Time Magazine

Matt McAllester wrote a sort of review of Bowie's The Next Day in the March 13, 2013, issue of Time Magazine, in which he remarks that Bowie mostly disappeared from performing--and in fact appearing in public at all--in 2006, a couple of years after suffering a heart attack on stage. But McAllester makes an interesting observation: "This was a rock star who, perhaps more than any other, had hidden behind bizarre, intimidating invented personas." (52)

This is a strange remark in light of what McAllester has to say next. He suggests that Bowie in the 1990s did not "make up" for the commercial success--and thus the critical and artistic failure--of Bowie in the 1980s. To illustrate the 1980s downfall of Bowie, a graphic accompanies the piece in which Bowie's "Quality of Work" is plotted along with his "Level of Exposure" along a y-axis of chronological time. In the early- to mid-1970s, Bowie's quality of work and level of exposure are both high; the late 1970s (what many commentators call Bowie's "Berlin" period) show a very low level of exposure but a high quality of work, a relationship which becomes completely inverted as the 1980s continue. And with the release of The Next Day, the relationship between the two elements inverts again: low level of exposure but high quality of work.

And, strangely, Bowie's middle period of artistic dread is mapped out quite neatly when one visits the "David Bowie Is" exhibition, as 1983 marks the strong emergence of new fashion for Bowie: he begins wearing the suit, a sort of garish revival of the zoot suit of the 1930s (McAllester calls "a kind of neocolonialist take"). (55)

I find McAllester's reading alright to a point, especially his comment regarding Bowie's personae (though I never thought of Ziggy Stardust as intimidating). I'm just not sure why he would make such a close equation between quality of work and low level of exposure. I agree that Bowie is deliberately keeping his exposure level low, but I'm not sure that this has anything to do with quality of work. My idea is not to judge the work from the 1980s as somehow less artistic, but that work (with its high level of exposure) sets the stage for everything that happens after.

Bowie walks the tightrope of needing exposure as a celebrity, and shunning that exposure at every turn, post-1988. That's my idea, anyway.

- from Matt McAllester, "The Culture: Where is He Now? David Bowie is Back to his Mysterious Best," Time 181:10 (18 March 2013), 52-55.

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