What did David Bowie mean to those that loved him? The night of his birthday, two days before his death, my friends and I went out to a cover band performing his songs. There were so many people in the band, and so many excited people dressed up as Bowie-esque creatures in the audience singing along, that there was a blurring of audience and performer. There was just a big room full of people who really loved David Bowie.
I can’t pretend to be a big Bowie aficionado, but I have known a few, and he seems to bring out a deep mirroring in his fans. When people love the Beatles, or Justin Bieber, or whoever, they often them as object and subject with a separation between them. When people love Bowie, they often love Bowie as Bowie. I suppose this happens with other musicians (female fans of Britney Spears often looked like Britney Spears) but Bowie’s androgynous nature calls to something that transcends the historical gender binds. People who exist in society otherwise as standard issue female, standard issue male, or non-standard issue gender would not be excluded from identifying with him.
I can’t really speak to the transcendental thing Bowie pointed to (there’s a reason it had to be communicated in music and other forms of art) but my loose impression would be that it was a little bit unearthly, and that it connected people with the infinite part of themselves that is always seeking expression. We all know that we are somehow more than what we appear, but we don’t all know how to say it.
Bowie also existed at a unique time with respect to music technology. In the 1880s recorded music was developed followed by radio in the 1920s, and both innovations completely changed humanity’s relationship to music. Before then, music had to be played live. With this technology, people were able to share a musical experience on a mass scale in a type of communion never before seen, or possible. Over the century between the 1880s and 1980s, many record companies came and went, but during the 1980s ultimately settled down on the major players who would exert a lot of control over what music became popular. Bowie came to popularity during the 70s near the end of this transition, before the industry had totally solidified, but while they were knowledgeable enough to release music to a large audience on a wide scale. I would expect that this allowed enough people to access Bowie so that he could become massively popular, but that he was not hampered during his formative years by the immense capitalist and commercial concerns that would plague later stars.
Now, of course, we are sitting in the midst of another musical revolution — technology has continued to develop, and now many more people have access to the means to create and distribute music. What the hell does this mean?
I don’t know, we can’t know yet. But it’s going to change everything.
The record labels are still clinging on, naturally. Many people think they’re in it for the money, but I don’t think so. A friend used to work with a bunch of the record guys, and he told me what they really wanted was to control culture and that was why they were so afraid of digital distribution. Even if the record industry could profit off digital distribution, they didn’t know how to control it, and that scared them. I don’t really know jack shit about the industry, but that fits with what I know of people. People don’t actually work for money, people work for influence. Money is just the most obvious way of gaining influence. Of course, this was years ago. Digital distribution has now come and there’s no going back.
It seems to me, though, that this is a major tipping point. It reminds me of the religious tipping point of protestantism, which relied heavily on the printing press. Way back in the day, bibles — and all other books — had to be handwritten. This meant that only a few people had access to them, so the clergy had to basically read the scripture to their congregants, many of whom were illiterate. Eventually, this became solidified as the “natural order” of things, and only the clergy was allowed to read the bible. The wider populations of European countries were discouraged or prohibited from reading it, and translation of the bible from latin into the native languages of the population was also prohibited. This allowed for, wouldn’t you know it, the Church to keep a tighter hold of cultural control on the population. And, people couldn’t really fight it, because bibles were so expensive it would be impossible for people to get their hands on them.
The innovation of the printing press, however, seriously brought down the price of books. This allowed people to get their hands on their very own bibles, and for the first time people were able to read and interpret scripture on their own. Previous reformations of the Church had been attempted, and failed. Even if people believed with the ideology of interpreting scripture for themselves, they couldn’t put it into practice. The innovation of the printing press allowed people to put into action the prescripts of protestantism, and so it took off.
Of course the old Church resisted it by placing restrictions on the printing press, and executing a bunch of people. But, in the long run, the greed of a few can never halt the expression of the many. Nowadays, bible reading is so common among all denominations of Christianity it seems almost insane that it would ever have been illegal. But, it was.
I think we are at a similar tipping point with musical expression. For the past 50 years or so, we have essentially acted as consumers of music, because that was our only option. While we had choice in music, we had vastly limited choice compared to the creative potential of the population because of music production and distribution cost. Bowie is one of the last great preachers of his kind, someone who had to exist when he did. Going forward, the same creative people who were drawn to Bowie will have a completely different interaction with art. What they are saying will be as important as what they’re hearing. It will become a conversation of some kind, though truthfully, I can’t imagine what it will look like.
And, in a way, that’s deeply sad. There will never be another Bowie, so much died with him. The feeling teenagers got when they first listened to his music in their parent’s basements will never be replicated. The teenagers of the future won’t feel that — they will feel something different. Their relationship to music will be different than ours.
As I write this post, I can’t help wondering “am I writing about David Bowie, or am I writing about any musician of the 1960s-80s?” and… I think this post had to be about him, although there is a lot of overlap. More than any other musician, I have seen David Bowie inspire art in other people. He inspired people to dress like him, draw him, create movies about him. The creative part of him touched the creative part of others making them want to create. Musicians always inspire musicians, but David Bowie inspired all types, and that’s a unique magical kind of thing. I think his art, especially, holds the future in it as he has slipped into the past. I think he called out to people seeking self expression, who were driven to create as much as they enjoyed consuming. These will be the type of people creating the art of the future.
But, we have yet to see what that art will be.
Read your own bible. Be your own Bowie.