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Lyrics Series I 17 I Artifice and Immortality

In the days following Bowie’s death, The New Republic published a commentary by Simon Critchley titled, “David Bowie’s Filthy Lesson” (click here to link to the story). Critchley’s observation was that “The ironic self-awareness of the artist and their audience can only be that of their inauthenticity, repeated at increasingly conscious levels…Art’s filthy lesson is inauthenticity all the way down, a series of repetitions and reenactments: fakes that strip away the illusion of reality in which we live and confront us with the reality of illusion.”

I referenced this article a few weeks back in comparing Bowie’s approach toward art with Donald Trump’s approach toward politics (go ahead and click here to link to that).

I’ve had Critchley’s article in my head for a while. He mentions several Bowie songs that make allusions to the cinema or acting, where Bowie conflates reality with performance. Bowie’s very presentation embodies this idea— who was the “real Bowie?” We’ll never know. We’re not supposed to know. Even the accessible, seemingly happy Bowie of the early 2000s was, as Leah Kardos observed, a character.

Anyway, Critchley mentions the following songs to make his point:

– Andy Warhol (“Andy Warhol, silver screen, can’t tell them apart at all”)
– “Quicksand” (“ I’m living in a silent film; Portraying Himmler’s sacred realm; Of dream reality”)
– “Five Years” (“Smiling and waving and looking so fine; Don’t think you knew you were in this song; And it was cold and it rained, so I felt like an actor)
– “The Secret Life of Arabia” (“You must see the movie the sand in my eyes; I walk through a desert song when the heroine dies”)
– “Candidate” (“My set is amazing, it even smells like a street”)
– “Life on Mars” (Really, its the whole song)

Critchley was presumably constrained by the space allotted to him on the pages of a magazine. Accordingly, he just scratched the surface. For Bowie there was no separation between art and artist. Reality itself was a show. It’s hard to know where to begin and where to end.

Bowie established the premise early on in his catalogue. In, “Queen Bitch,” (1970) he pledges, “I can do better than that.” What is it he can do better? Well, he’s describing a “swishy” performance by a gay man, camping it up. The song hints at Bowie’s true motivation for his displays of androgyny— it was for attention. Keep in mind, while I’m not disputing that Bowie had sexual encounters with men, he never went public with a “boyfriend,” while frequently being seen accompanied by beautiful women (including his two wives).

Bowie was even more explicit in “Star” (1972), where he declares, “I can make it all worthwhile as a rock ‘n’ roll star.” The word, “star” would become Bowie’s favorite homonym, which he’d revisit again and again suggesting both meanings of the word in songs such as “The Stars Are Out Tonight” (2013) and “Blackstar” (2016). Going back to the original, “Star,” a great song that can get lost amidst the even greater songs on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, I have little doubt that Bowie wanted us thinking about his pledge to make it all worthwhile as a star when he incorporates the word into “Stardust” and “Starman.” Here is Bowie saying to be a star he’s going to act like a space alien rock star. Ziggy was never meant to be taken any moire literally than the character Bowie portrayed on stage (though it’s been speculated that he eventually had a hard time separating himself from his alter ego).

Bowie suggests the corruption of the idea on his next album, Aladdin Sane (1973). His “Cracked Actor” is “stiff on my legend, the films that I made.” This dislikable fellow is living Bowie’s nightmare of getting off on memories of his past performances. Bowie was worried about becoming that character, and he would dispense with Ziggy soon enough.

But not before Pin Ups (1973), a cover album, the cover of which featured Bowie not only wearing makeup, but makeup applied to look like a mask. And he’s next to Twiggy, without explanation, like the whole thing is a photo shoot. There’s a subtler reference to the idea of blurring reality with art as Bowie had just referenced Twiggy on his last album, in another song that evokes movies, “Drive in Saturday,” (“She’d sigh like Twig the wonder kid”). The whole concept of Pin Ups is Bowie playing Ziggy covering all these other bands. I’d add that the appearance of Twiggy on the cover suggests a full circle return to “real life,” again suggesting that we’re living in a performance.

Skip ahead to Young Americans (1975) where Bowie asks his audience to accept the premise that he’s a (possibly American, possibly even black) soul singer. Not unlike Pin Ups and Ziggy, Bowie draws attention to his own artifice. And in case the point isn’t clear, he included the song, “Who Can I Be Now?” in which he sings, “Played your role for every day; Please help me; Who can I be now? You found me; Who can I be?” And later asks, “Can I be real?” and “Can I be free?”

He blurs the lines even further on his next album, Station to Station (1976). Once again the album’s cover sets the stage — it’s a still from the movie, The Man Who Fell to Earth. The album has nothing to do with the movie. We’re not supposed to look at the cover and think that this is a Thomas Newton album (that’s the name of his character). But I don’t think Bowie meant to hide where the image came from. So we’re supposed to be aware that Bowie is acting in the image. It’s Bowie playing Newton as representation of Bowie. And on the album is “TVC-15,” in which the narrator’s girlfriend becomes one with a television.

Bowie would repeat the cover trick with Low (1977), which not only uses another image from The Man Who Fell to Earth, but uses one of the same images used on some of the movie’s promotional materials. The message could hardly be clearer— David Bowie is a character.

Around that time, Bowie would co-write “China Girl” with Iggy Pop. The narrator of “China Girl” sings, “I’m feeling tragic like I’m Marlon Brando.” How does a person feel tragic? And why the Brando reference? I think this is an oblique reference to the idea that the song’s narrator is going to act (like Brando, the actor) as if he’s playing the part in a tragedy. Tragedy is not an emotion. It’s a type of drama or, more broadly, a state that causes sorrow (which is a feeling). He’s noticeably not saying that he’s feeling sorrowful, instead he’s feeling tragic, which, especially combined with the Brando reference, suggests its all a conscious act.

And it goes on and on. I don’t have the space constraints that hemmed in Critchley, but there are just too many examples of Bowie drawing attention to his own artifice.

So the next logical question is, why?

I think the answer has to do with the intersection between Bowie’s theme of artifice and at least three other themes he’d return to again and again— isolation, impermanence and death. Briefly on isolation— much of Bowie’s fan base, especially outside his periods of maximal accessibility (like the Let’s Dance era), at least thought of themselves as outsiders. So part of Bowie’s appeal was to show a way to fake it until you make it. How not to be shy? Act like you’re not shy. How to be a star? Act like a star.

The connection between acting and both impermanence and death runs a little deeper. Bowie rarely sings about eternity. He will often express long periods of time as nonetheless limited (“I’ll stick with you, baby, for a thousand years”). On the rare occasion that he does discuss eternity, it ain’t good. Think of the Supermen’s “endless, tragic lives” (from “The Supermen,” 1970). The stars, in “The Stars Are Out Tonight,” are like vampires. They are later versions of the cracked actor— what Bowie never wanted to be. He deliberately was calling back to “Star,” where he set out to play a part, and now, “we will never be rid of these stars, but I hope they live forever.” I’m wondering if he had his character from The Hunger in mind.

If permanence is calcification, Bowie is far more worried about immortality than dying. He addresses death again and again throughout his career, but it’s never with fear. As early as 1971 he sings, “knowledge comes with death’s release” (“Quicksand”). 1. Outside (1995) contemplates murder as art. His final album, Blackstar, makes art out of his own dying. Death, for Bowie is literally the final act. Blackstar was his outro.

But buried in all this is Bowie’s hidden, ironic realization: the person dies, but the art can live on. David Robert Jones was not seeking immortality, but his characters achieved it. What’s more, in that Bowie’s art has influenced subsequent artists, have been reproduced, covered and interpreted, the characters of David Bowie very much still live.

And I hope they live forever.

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