I was never that into David Bowie while he was alive. His music was okay, but then so was that of The Bee Gees and Sister Sledge and a lot of other people. Bowie dressed flamboyantly, but then wasn’t that what all glam rockers did in the 1970s? He sometimes did duets with other middle-aged pop stars. In the nineties he married a supermodel and moved to New York. To be honest, he seemed a set part of the Establishment.
But a couple of years ago, I took my daughter to see The Victoria and Albert Museum’s Bowie retrospective. One exhibit was an original white and orange quilted Ziggy Stardust bodysuit in a glass cabinet. The audio headset would play the opening riff to “Starman” whenever we stepped near it. My six year old was mesmerised – and hooked. It was a great exhibition: tons of stuff including costumes, story-boards, sketches and diary entries. What a life. So much creativity. So many ideas, perfectly executed. So many challenges to the norm.
This morning I went down to Brixton to pay my respects. I wanted to re-visit the mural painted by James Cochran, just a few streets from Bowie’s birthplace. I wanted to take a photo of the impromptu shrine that’s sprung up there since news broke of Bowie’s death.
The crowd is visible as soon as you step out from the tube. There were people five deep just standing and staring, or praying, or telling their small wide-eyed children how amazing Bowie had been. I realised the only way I’d be able to get to the front without being rude would be to grab a bunch of flowers and ask to add them to the tributes.
So I popped across the road and bought three pink gerberas, then popped back and waited my turn behind the crowd. “You’re clearly a devoted fan!” said a jolly voice, then a microphone was thrust in front of me and a Latin American film crew appeared. “Um…” I said. Anyway, I didn’t want to disappoint them. I told them Bowie had been inspirational in the way he led his life and it was unusual to have a public figure so brave and full of integrity.
Then on the way home I watched this video of Bowie being interviewed by Jeremy Paxman for Newsnight in 1999. Turns out, he really was a visionary. I love what he says in this interview, because it reminds me of that year, and why I quit TV to work with “ebusiness” in the first place. Bowie puts the ‘Net firmly in its historical, artistic context. His words are a great reminder of just how far we’ve come culturally – and how far we still have to go.
Here are the five amazing things he said:
- I wanted to be a musician because it seemed subversive. It had a kind of call to arms feeling to it: this is the thing that will change things. Now [music] is a career opportunity. The Internet now carries the flag of being subversive and possibly rebellious and chaotic and nihilistic.
- There’s a demystification process going on between the artist and the audience. When you look back at this last decade there hasn’t been one single entity, artist or group that have personified or become the “brand name” for the 90s. Now it’s sub-groups and genres: hip-hop, girl power…it’s about a community. It’s becoming more and more about the audience. Because the point of having somebody who “led the forces” has disappeared…I like to see what the new construction is between artist and audience. There’s a breakdown, personified by the rave culture of the last few years, where the audience is at least as important as the person who’s playing at the rave. It’s almost like the artist is to accompany the audience in what they’re doing. And that feeling is very much permeating music. And permeating the Internet.
- Until at least the mid 70s we felt we were living in the guise of a single, absolute, created society where there were known truths and known lies and no duplicity or pluralism about the things that we believed in. That started to break down rapidly in the 70s. And the idea of a duality in the way we lived, that there were always two, three, four, five sides to every question [emerged]. That singularity disappeared and that I believe has produced such a medium as the Internet that absolutely establishes that we are living in total fragmentation.
- I don’t think we’ve even seen the tip of the iceberg. I think the potential of what the Internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable. I think we’re on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying…it’s an alien life form!
- The actual context and the state of content is going to be so different to anything we can really envisage at the moment. Where the interplay between the user and the provider will be so in “sympatico” it’s going to crush ideas of what mediums (sic) are all about. But it’s happening in every form. It’s happening in visual art. The breakthroughs of the early part of this century with people like Duchamp who were so prescient in what they were doing and putting down. The idea that the piece of work is not finished until the audience come to it and add their own interpretation and what the piece of art is about is the grey space in the middle. That grey space in the middle is what the twenty-first century is going to be about.
Ironically, this is what we’re seeing now – the audience coming to the artist in tribute, adding layer upon layer of personal interpretation – not just in real life, but across the web and Internet.
Let’s hope we all keep going. Let’s stay creative and continue to challenge any questionable “norms” around us. The fact Bowie was a paid-up member of any “establishment” is testament to just how amazing he was – and to just how accommodating society can be when you’re not afraid to push.