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Where Are We Now?

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MessagePosté le: Sam 12 Avr - 20:00 (2014)    Sujet du message: Where Are We Now? Répondre en citant

Books & Arts, Literary Supplement — April 6, 2014 6:39 pm

Where Are We Now?

By Zeenia Framroze

For five decades, David Bowie has been a cultural chameleon in musical history: “Space Oddity” played in the background as BBC broadcast the first footage from the moon. The deep V-necks and laced-up red boots of Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane could drive crowds insane. Few aren’t lured by Bowie’s lyricism in “Let’s Dance.”

Bowie occupies a unique and constantly changing place in our musical psyche and memory. His voice and style draw on his musical past while possessing contemporary appeal. He has written nonsense lyrics and cultural anthems. Perhaps the most predominant manner in which we remember David Bowie is a sociopolitical one: many of his songs gained traction in times of moral crisis or cultural rejuvenation, among them the moon landing and the Cold War. Bowie never explicitly viewed himself as a political artist, yet it was a defining feature of how his music is listened to and remembered.

David Bowie has been a crucial part of the world’s cultural growth, and how we remember this artist has fascinating implications for how we will and ought to receive Bowie’s latest album. After a ten-year hiatus from the music industry, Bowie unexpectedly released a new album, The Next Day, shocking fans and critics alike. The album possesses an elderliness—a wisdom—and arguably, a distinct and explicit social commentary that we have not seen before from Bowie.

The Victoria and Albert Museum recently ended an exhibit called David Bowie Is, showcasing much of Bowie’s costume gear and memorabilia from the David Bowie Archive. The exhibit itself forces audiences to ask many poignant questions about who David Bowie is, who he was, and what he and his audiences hope for him to be. The difficulty, of course, with putting Bowie into these boxes is that his artistry does not allow him to be confined or explained. Determining how The Next Day will factor into our sociopolitical understanding of the different shades of ‘Bowie’ will necessitate painting a picture from the messy palette of his fashion and presentation choices, music and writing, and his growing self-consciousness as the superstar musician of many generations.

“Fashion! Turn To The Left! Fashion! Turn To The Right!”

That perfectly strained voice is practically audible as you stand in front of the sound-wave-reminiscent Ziggy Stardust costume at the V&A Museum. The billowing yet magically structured pant legs encapsulate everything about Bowie himself: restrained yet resounding, confined within visible lines yet explosive.

David Bowie, both in song and appearance, is synonymous with the new and avant-garde. At the forefront of the world of fashion, David Bowie’s eclectic choices defined the notion that artists ought to conform to their own personal standards, rather than those of their audiences. Bowie’s choices to embrace the outlandish and weird have manifested in our understanding of Bowie as a maverick of society, a champion of risk-taking. Bowie experimented with cut and size and fit in a way few celebrities had before. His aim did not seem to be explicitly to endear the fashion world to him or appeal to the Bond Street highbrow, but rather to set a certain standard for them to aspire to.

Eschewing countless fashion staples, Bowie put himself together physically as weirdly as he put himself together musically. As Aladdin Sane, the distinct lightening bolt painted across his face, Bowie explored the clash of minimalism and color, navigating the music industry as a massively popular rock star for the first time. As Ziggy, Bowie placed himself above the popular music fray, experimenting with the weird and extraterrestrial, sporting a painted gold orb on his forehead. Bowie’s fashion choices were typical of his personal choices, indicating a desire not to cater to a certain consumer of music, and not to cater to a certain definition of “male performing artist.” Without being an advocate or poster child for any cause or alliance, Bowie dismissed the sartorial rules with flair.

Bowie’s sexuality and public discussions of it further set him apart in our collective memory of the artist. David Bowie displayed a reluctance to uphold the banner for homosexual or bisexual groups, despite the fact that sexuality and androgyny were a core component of his performance and identity. Having made several public declarations regarding his sexuality, Bowie eschewed the attention focused on the importance of his orientation, often calling his decision to discuss it a mistake: “I had no problem with people knowing I was bisexual. But I had no inclination to hold any banners or be a representative of any group of people. I knew what I wanted to be, which was a songwriter and a performer, and I felt that bisexuality became my headline over here for so long.”

The most authoritative of Bowie’s biographers, David Buckley, noted that this period in Bowie’s artistic life focused on his ability to shock his audience with his sexuality, and to reinvent himself, artistically. These years carried with them the distinct decision to focus on moral codes that defied social definition and confinement. In a way, Bowie’s decisions regarding sexuality and fashion allowed him to drive social change without being overtly committed to it. He accomplished the kind of change that all great art aspires to: a deep, cultural, and historical type of change.

“Turn And Face The Strange”

Most peculiar about the way we remember David Bowie is where we believe the “change” that he propelled is manifested. Was Bowie the pioneer of the new and weird? The leader of the musical masses to adopt a different style of listening and aesthetic experience? Or was he the result of morphing cultural undercurrents, a pop icon as mutable and malleable as public perception itself? In many ways, the lyrics of Bowie’s most popular songs give us insight into the inner workings of the singer. While many of his stranger tunes have faded into oblivion, some have truly stuck, becoming anthems of generations and causes. Bowie’s own reflection on interpersonal “Changes” resulted in a generation’s collective anticipation of the changes that the ‘70s would bring.

Bowie explored the idea of rock stardom through his many reinventions.

Bowie’s lyrics also managed to capture the sense of sociopolitical unrest in his listeners’ lives and express it in song, as was seen during the Vietnam War. Bowie’s lyrics could often reach a level of incredible depth, tapping into a type of generational memory that was so implicit that people reacted to it subconsciously. His famous collaboration with Queen’s Freddie Mercury for “Under Pressure” is a fascinating exploration of the reverberating effects of a lack of humanity, a social development that “puts people on streets.” In a 2008 interview, Brian May recalled, “It was hard, because you had four very precocious boys and David, who was precocious enough for all of us,” particularly when Bowie took over the writing of the lyrics. The political relevance of the song was subtle but powerful: “Love’s such an old fashioned word / And love dares you to care for / The people on the edge of the night / And love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves.”

And thus our memory of Bowie is so innately human. It is the memory of a singer whose deliberateness in diction and tune appealed to something far above a consumer driven appreciation of music: a human appreciation of each other.

As Bowie grew, the world grew with him. The pleasant fear of “Changes” was as much a reflection of the changing world around Bowie as it was about the changing singer himself. “The Man Who Sold The World” (1970) and “Hunky Dory” (1971) reflected on the issues of humanity surrounding the effects of the détente and different human rights movements in the United States and Africa. Placing “Changes” on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, Rolling Stone looked at the song as a reflection of Bowie’s own relationship with a generation’s evolving tastes and values. Telling audiences to “turn and face the strange,” without ever asking their permission or seeking their blessing, it was Bowie and his anthem that marched the rock audiences into the ‘80s.

Before Bowie stopped touring and performing, his later works cemented his status as an inconceivably important rock star for the Baby Boomer generation. As Ziggy Stardust crooning “Starman,” he appealed to a forgotten hope for fantasy and wonder in a world where “poppa might get us locked up in fright.” In reality, Bowie says, we ought to just “let all the children boogie.”

At the same time, during the years he spent in Berlin, Bowie made sure that his sociopolitical statements were not perceived in such a manner. Wrapping up the ‘70s for himself with “Ashes to Ashes,” Bowie explored the depths of his own fantasy and memory with a song about a 1969 album character, “Major Tom.” Though the song is often simply hailed as a tribute to the character, Bowie’s interaction with his own memory mirrored the nuance of a generation emerging from a period of extreme historical tumult—“They got a message from the action man / I’m happy, hope you’re happy too / I’ve loved all I’ve needed love / Sordid details following.”

Bowie’s growth in tune, appearance, and costume, and their consistent interaction with one another, cemented Bowie as an artist unlike any other the world has ever seen. The incredible depth of his music appealed to something human and inhuman, popular and unknown, utterly insane and nonsensical, and yet perfectly lucid. It is why the politics of Bowie are so hard to pin down: the artist himself never viewed himself in that paradigm, and never wanted his audiences to either.

“And The Next Day And The Next, And Another Day”

Bowie’s latest album, The Next Day—released unexpectedly in March 2013— melded the themes of memory, identity, violence and reconciliation in a brilliant union of the past and present. The cover of the album itself is a commentary on this very union; atop Bowie’s most revered and well-known Heroes album cover is a simple white square with plain black text spelling out the album name. Is Bowie obliterating the past or writing on top of it? Dismissing his musical tradition or keeping it in the back of his mind? Bowie is no doubt asking himself these questions as an artist, as much as he is asking us as an audience to answer them for him and ourselves. In this very question lies the political relevance and genius of Bowie; he asks us to question how we interact with our past.

The first single Bowie released from that album was one of the most explicit examples of social commentary that Bowie has injected into his music. “Where Are We Now?” not only looks at the world through the lens of a post-Berlin Era Bowie, but through the eyes of those who have listened to and loved David Bowie’s music for years. Other singles from the album featured intriguing music videos entirely engrossed in the subjects of cultural commentary and memory. The controversial music video for “The Next Day” featured Marion Cotillard as a stigmata figure in a brothel-like den for priests, demonstrating Bowie’s new and direct engagement with organized religion. “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” delves into the themes of stardom, obsession and voyeurism: The new album asks listeners to define the past for themselves—and for him.

The new album asks listeners to define the past for themselves—and for him.

They burn you with their radiant smiles
Trap you with their beautiful eyes
They’re broke and shamed or drunk or scared
But I hope they live forever.

The music video for the song, featuring fellow androgyne Tilda Swinton, allows the audience to see Bowie interacting with a younger version of himself, testing the limits of memory and reinvention.

The album has received with much fanfare and critical acclaim. Songs like “The Next Day,” “Valentine’s Day,” and “(You Will) Set The World On Fire” seem to herald the arrival of a new, strong, and unabashedly opinionated Bowie, while tracks like “I’d Rather Be High” and familiar guitar twang of “Dancing Out in Space,” recall moments from the Space Oddity and Ziggy eras.

The importance of this album and even David Bowie himself might well be lost on the millennial generation. Bowie is sixty-six years old—the strains of wisdom and old age are a new addition to his music. However, the importance of Bowie has expanded to encompass the idea that he’s no longer merely a musical figure or a pop star, but an artistic enigma. He’s an artist whose choices in music and film and presentation are filled with poignancy and subtlety, whose lyrics speak of an internal struggle that knows no need for paradigms and vocabulary.

That is why Bowie should occupy a revered place in the music libraries of today’s youth: Bowie is not at the stage in his life where he has a chart position or a royalty to make. He makes music because, for him, it has always appealed to a certain kind of humanity, a political nature of empathy that is more intangible than what we perceive to be politics today. Bowie can still be the sociopolitical barometer of the millennial generation. The Next Day is the bridge, the album that connects generation to generation, memory to memory.

Harvard Political Review

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MessagePosté le: Sam 12 Avr - 20:00 (2014)    Sujet du message: Publicité

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