Watch that, man: Reading too much into Bowie
Have you heard? Itâs time to get off social media. Because David Bowie says so.
Okay, he hasnât actually said that. But itâs whatâs being inferred by people who make it their business to overthink his motives while underthinking his music. And would they steer us wrong?
Last week, the excitement over Bowieâs unexpected comeback reached a fever pitch when his first album in a decade,Â The Next Day, was made available as a free stream on iTunes. (Itâs available for purchase March 12.)Â Concurrently, producer Tony Visconti was all over the press, recounting how their creative team had kept word of Bowieâs return a complete and utter secret until the last minute â even from the artistâs own label executives and P.R. people.
Journalists remarked that Bowieâs rejection of a âslow build,â market-saturation promotional strategy was highly unorthodox â particularly for a cyber-visionary who had just a few years ago championed the use of the Internet as a fan-networking tool. If Bowie was going in the other direction, these expert tea-leaf-readers assumed, then so must the industry be â and maybe even society itself. Constant contact was out; the mystique of inaccessibility was in.
Even the DISQUS set agreed that, yes, a brave new world of reticence must be at hand. âMore time spent on writing songs, less time on Twitter & Facebook. That is my advice to new bands,â one âAdamâ chimed in onÂ Rolling Stone.
Hold on there, Sam Donaldson. It really shouldnât be necessary to point out that ânew bandsâ donât enjoy the flexibility a Bowie does. For the up-and-comers in pop â and in any art form, really â time spent on social networks is now a necessary supplement to, not a replacement for, time spent slaving away on the actual product. How many struggling creators could employ a strategy of CIA-like secrecy to anything but the most self-defeating effect? You canât build a mystique around something people havenât yet experienced. There is no demand without supply, or at least the promise of it.
(And that doesnât apply only to the young unknowns: Blue Oyster Cult, for instance, have been away from recording for two years longer than Bowie was, yet if they suddenly released a new disc they had recorded âin secret,â the response would be knee-slapping incredulity. A secret fromÂ whom, pray tell? Christopher Walken and Will Ferrell, maybe?)
Itâs understandable that some would still ascribe willful paradigm shifting to everything Bowie does. In his â70s heyday, calculated heraldry was practically his GNP. Now, decades past Ziggy and the Thin White Duke, he canât change his shoes without someone commenting on his ânew persona.â (Weâve further devalued this idea by assigning it to dim clotheshorses like Madonna, who only ever had one persona, and never demonstrated the ability to come up with a full two.) But the Year of the Diamond Dogs was a long time ago, and Bowie is now a 66-year old who doesnât have to do anything to get our attentionâand that includes doing nothing. Even his abrupt, thief-in-the-night reemergence into the pop marketplace doesnât really qualify as a publicity stunt, simply because that marketplace has essentially vanished. Bowie will sell just as many albums by keeping mum as he would have by spilling his guts on late-night TV for the past three months. Which is as many albums as 99 percent of all acts sell nowadays, which is next to none. (The album itself revels in that implied freedom, Bowie exuding the relief of a man who doesnât have to throw out his back reaching for a brass ring that long ago rolled away and got crushed under the merry-go-âround.)
When you know what you donât have to do, you can figure out what you donât want to do. Maybe Bowie is having his producer do his interviews not because heâs trying to further some sort of Greta Garbo pose, but simply because he doesnât feel like it. I wouldnât blame him. It would have to be dispiriting in the extreme to lead a game of catch-up with some 20-year-old freelancebot fromÂ Rolling Stone who doesnât know who Earl Slick is, let alone Bertolt Brecht. (It probably wasnât much fun dealing with the freelancebots of the â70s either, but if they didnât know who Brecht was, they at least they had the sense to pretend they did.) Hell, if I were advising Bowie, at this point, I wouldnât even want him talking toÂ me.
Yet the belief remains that David Bowie is talking to us even when he ainât talking — that his every decision should be taken as a didactic measure aimed at upping the quality of life of aging droogies everywhere. Thereâs a wide chasm of difference, though, between an inspiration and a template. And Iâd be very surprised to find out that Bowie has even a vestigial interest in serving as the latter. Thatâs the province of jackasses like Prince, who a few years ago renounced his own endeavors in online outreach â and couldnât resist urging the world at large to follow suit.
â[A]ll these computers and digital gadgets are no good. They just fill your head with numbers and that can’t be good for you,â he opined, exhibiting his customary pinpoint intellectual focus. (As I recall, this epiphany coincided exactly with a big contract he had signed to disseminate his music via that most wholesome of communications platforms, the U.K. Sunday press.)
Whatever oversimplified computer dystopia Prince saw, I doubt itâs the world David Bowie sees. Not for ânew bands,â not for wannabe fashion designers, and not for people who simply want to play Words With Friends with their cousin in Des Moines and donât have to worry about Fleet Street tumbling to their secret recording sessions. Thinking that Bowie wants or needs to lead us off that path of digital interaction and back to âauthenticityâ is pretty ridiculous on its face (and pretty ironic, given our aforementioned tendency to still view him as the King of Artifice).
Maybe we just want to be a part of a movement, even when the evidence that weÂ arenât is right there in front of us. For example, the rationale for changing your online avatar to aÂ Mad Men-like caricature is to feel at one with that programâs aesthetic. But when Bowie offered a similar customization tool keyed to the cover art for his new record, the inevitable byproduct was giddy separation. The reason was simple: Not one of us possesses a mug shot as iconic as BowieâsÂ Heroes portrait to literally deface.
Celebrities: They arenât âjust like us.â Iâm head over heels aboutÂ The Next Day — the albumÂ and the anti-marketing campaign â but I donât see much of myself in it, and thatâs a good thing. I sure donât hear it as some clarion call to change my life, my professional strategies or my leisure habits.
As Bowie once sang, âItâs got nothing to do with you, if one can grasp it.â And I think I can grasp it. I may even tweet about it.