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David Bowie's post-modernism

Everything in Bowie’s post-modern art was mutable, but most of all the artist himself.

Stuart Jeffries26 October 2021

David Bowie's post-modernism

On 3 July 1973, at London’s Hammersmith Odeon, David Bowie told the crowd: ‘Not only is this the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show we’ll ever do. Thank you.’

At the time Bowie was incarnating Ziggy Stardust, a space-age pop-star character whose androgynous allure made him a simulacrum of other real-life glam-rock stars, such as Marc Bolan. On his hit album of the previous year, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Bowie had sung what in hindsight became the chronicle of a death foretold.

On that night in west London, Bowie killed Ziggy and broke up the band. But he didn’t tell the bassist and drummer before making his on-stage announcement. Trevor Bolder is reputed to have mouthed to drummer Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey, ‘He’s fucking sacked us!’ And then, fittingly, the band launched into their last number, ‘Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide’, sacrificing Ziggy to the crowd, with whom Bowie symbolically merged as he sang the song’s last line: ‘Gimme your hands, ’cause you’re wonderful.’

Bowie-as-Ziggy, argues fan-turned-philosopher Simon Critchley, captivated his fans because his persona refused the dominant norms of society – boy/girl, human/alien, gay/straight. In the anti-Oedipal terms of Deleuze and Guattari, Bowie de-territorialised himself in becoming the androgynous star- man, quitting the cul-de-sac of suburbia for the gender-bending, omnisexual fantasy realm of outer space.

At the end of ‘Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide’, Bowie was reaching out to his target demographic, whom Critchley describes as ‘millions of self-conscious mini-Hamlets, living out their loveless hells in scattered, sundry hamlets, towns’. Teenage Simon was just such a mini-Hamlet, dreaming of a life beyond his native Letchworth Garden City. Leafy Letchworth, like Bowie’s Beckenham, might have seemed arboreal, rooted, stuck. That night in Hammer- smith, Ziggy, as he sacrificed himself on stage, revealed himself as outlier, pointing the way – the Deleuzian line of flight for others to take from the spiritual lockdown of suburbia to the stars, propelled by the revolutionary force of desire-production. ‘We heard those words’, recalls Critchley, ‘and were astonished at being forgiven. We just needed to reach out our hands. We did. We bought the album.’

The spiritual rebirth from Ziggy’s sacrificial death came with a price. But that’s how it is: at the end of the post-modern show, the exit is always through the gift shop. Ziggy’s death was a necessary sacrifice. The mask had begun to stick, so Bowie cast it off. And after that sacrifice, he would be creatively born again many times. The Beckenham boy had already become existentially fraught spacemen Major Tom and Ziggy Stardust; he would go on to become the thin white duke, the man who fell to earth, Pierrot junkie, elephant man, goblin king. Ultimately, on his album Blackstar, released two days before his death in 2016, he left his fans an inscrutable testament that they could try, and most likely fail, to interpret.

Bowie was a virtuoso of becoming rather than being, and his long artistic career was a series of anti-Oedipal flights: he flitted from mask to mask the better to escape confrontation with what lies behind. (‘I’ve never caught a glimpse’, he sang on ‘Changes’, ‘Of how the others must see the faker / I’m much too fast to take that test.’)

His lyrics became parodies of meaninglessness, words in flight that were suggestive but never weighed down with anything as determinate as meaning. On the 1974 album Diamond Dogs, for instance, he employed the cut-up method developed by novelist William Burroughs and artist Brion Gysin. Like them, he took scissors to text, drew slips of paper at random to produce lyrics that were suggestive (or more or less random: the fact that they often rhymed suggests Bowie submitted to more order than he was letting on). Hence such lyrics as this verse from the album’s title track:

Meet his little hussy with his ghost-town approach

Her face is sans feature, but she wears a Dali brooch

Sweetly reminiscent, something mother used to bake

Wrecked up and paralysed, Diamond Dogs are stabilised.

Meaning was a mask – something that could be picked up and discarded before it stuck. It was as though Bowie the author had  committed suicide in a manner not foreseen by Barthes and Foucault, and left to his fans the burden of interpreting what it was, if indeed anything, he was on about. A poisoned chalice, given that it was conceived to be literally meaningless. And not only was meaning unstable: if you opened the gatefold sleeve to Diamond Dogs, the naked Bowie on the front was revealed to have a canine body, as if he was in the process of becoming a dog.

He was born David Robert Jones in Brixton, south London, in 1947, and formed his first band, The Konrads, in 1962, playing rock ’n’ roll covers at youth clubs and weddings. He went on to front several other bands in the 1960s – including The Lower Third and The Riot Squad – and became a proselyte for identity fluidity. Indeed, Bowie’s early years revealed him as a fashion outlier or proto–Gok Wan, persuading a series of unreconstructed white English blokes in the band to free their minds and wear make-up. In the back of the ambulance that served as The Lower Third’s tour bus, Bowie argued they should emulate groovy mod bands in London with their sharp suits, amphetamine intensity and make-up. Bassist Graham Rivens ‘turned round and said: “Fuck that” ’, recalled guitarist Denis Taylor in a 2019 BBC documentary.

Later, Bowie convinced Mick Ronson, Woody Woodmandsey and Trevor Bolder – who have, I would submit, the most hetero names in the glam rock pantheon – that they should not only stretch silver satinette over their beer guts, but conceal their stubble with foundation. Only then could they become the Spiders from Mars to his Ziggy Stardust. ‘When they realised how many girls they could pull while looking otherworldly,’ recalled Bowie off camera, ‘they took to it like a duck to water.’ 

How did this suburban boy mutate into such a lubricious alligator, Major Tom, alien – not to mention squaddie amusingly buried up to his neck in sand by Japanese captors in the film Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence? One theory, advanced by his cousin, Kristina Amadeus, was unrequited love. He was always trying to please his mum, Peggy. Childhood friend Geoff Mac- Cormack, writing to Bowie after her death, said he thought she had never approved of him. ‘She never quite took to me either,’ Bowie wrote back. Strikingly, he had a half-brother, Terry, who Bowie recalled as a rebel outsider and the catalyst for his escape from suburbia, introducing him to beat literature and rock ’n’ roll (when he heard Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’, Bowie would recall, it was like hearing God). Terry ended up hospitalised with schizophrenia until his suicide in 1985, while David made a career from slipping into and out of different personae.

Certainly Bowie wore many masks. By 1975, he had evolved from diamond dog to soul boy, sporting a new haircut and sound, plundering contemporary black American music for his album Young Americans. A year later, he recast himself as Thin White Duke for the album Station to Station, a character announced on the title track thus: ‘The return of the thin white duke, throwing darts in lovers’ eyes.’

The following year he pitched up in Berlin, where he produced what turned out to be a series of three albums – Low, Heroes and Lodger – in which he performed himself as world-weary Europhile. ‘I’ve lived all over the world’, he sang on ‘Be My Wife’, surely the most unconvincing marriage proposal in popular song, ‘I’ve left every place.’ The perils of taking Deleuze’s line of flight were laid bare: perhaps the globetrotter was yearning for conjugal felicity and domesticity. Or perhaps not: Bowie was never more post-modern than in his ironic, unreliable narratives about the person we took to be ‘David Bowie’.

By 1980, he was commenting ironically on his post-modern persona even as he developed another, the Pierrot junkie of 1980s ‘Ashes to Ashes’. In that song, Bowie seemed to be inhabiting another future dystopia – at least in the video for the single – sinking in clown make-up into lime-green nuclear waste, a white-faced clown in Tarkovskian end-times:

Ashes to ashes, funk to funky 

We know Major Tom’s a junkie

Strung out in heaven’s high

Hitting an all-time low.

Drugs indeed fuelled Bowie’s mutations. He described himself as taking industrial qualities of cocaine during the 1970s, and ascribed the fascist salute he gave from an open-top car in character as Thin White Duke as a theatrical gesture devoid of political significance, and also symptomatic of his drug use. He wasn’t flirting with fascism, as we were to suppose; he was playing a role. Even the hate speech of a Hitler salute was subordinate to spectacle.

Everything in Bowie’s post-modern art was mutable, but most of all the artist himself. He was the personification of his friend and collaborator Iggy Pop’s 1977 single ‘The Passenger’, taking a ride on others’ texts, other identities. Critchley supposes that the title of the song may have been inspired by Antonioni’s film. Iggy claimed in one interview he was the passenger, whom Bowie had driven around the United States because he did not have a driving licence. In that song, produced by Bowie and recorded at the Hansa studios in Berlin, the world is reimagined as nocturnal phantasmagoria created for consumption.

The most curious of David Bowie’s personae, though, was humanoid alien Thomas Jerome Newton, whom Bowie played in Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 film, The Man Who Fell to Earth. Not so much re-territorialised as territorialised, Newton has come to earth to seek a water supply after his home planet has dried up – but only after putting on a disguise to pass as human.

Initially his mission is successful: he deploys his technological superiority to patent a series of inventions, and becomes immensely wealthy, using his money to pay for a spaceship that will transport water to save his home planet. In the meantime he lives with Mary-Lou, a rather simple hotel worker who, while not realising he is an extra-terrestrial, recognises he is not from these parts. He tells her he’s English, which, hilariously, satisfies her suspicions.

She introduces him to two of her home planet’s leading pleasures, TV and alcohol, and he becomes addicted to both, sitting before a wall of screens, drinking, stupefied and immobilised like the personification of Guy Debord’s society of the spectacle, or the territorialised emblem of conformity from which Deleuze and Guattari sought to liberate us.

The most resonant scene comes when Newton reveals his true identity to Mary-Lou. He is not English, but something even more disturbing. He performs a striptease of the self, an alien dance of the seven veils, peeling off nipples and hair, removing his ears and contact lenses to reveal reptilian eyes beneath. Mary-Lou turns white with shock and wets herself in terror. Her desire to see a more true self beyond the performance, stripped bare of pretence, is satisfied, but only in a horrifying way. Humankind, wrote T. S. Eliot, cannot bear very much reality. And reality, Newton’s true self in The Man Who Fell to Earth, is literally alien.

The philosopher Charles Taylor argued that we live in an age of authenticity. The injunction to be authentic, he suggested, has replaced the injunction to submit oneself to God’s will. This age of authenticity, in which we are individuals tasked with becoming ourselves, with finding our own way and doing our own things, is the Enlightenment’s gift to us, or perhaps its curse. The idea that one had to use one’s own reason and experience to find God, which arose with the Enlightenment and found expression in the philosophy of deism, instilled a sense of intellectual autonomy that led some to abandon God altogether.

What’s this got to do with David Bowie? The one-time starman refused to be pinned down in one identity. Moreover, he was a reminder, in our age of authenticity, of the importance of inauthenticity. Simon Critchley wrote: ‘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.’

Newton’s disclosure of his authentic self is something David Bowie, the post-modern artist, the man who spent his careers flitting from mask to mask, never did in public. Indeed, as Newton he was hiding behind another mask even as – in the kind of multi-layered irony post-modernism is renowned for – he played a character revealing his true self: each day when Bowie became the alien for The Man Who Fell to Earth, he would spend eight hours in make-up.

What this amounts to is the realisation that micro-analysing Bowie’s lyrics for hidden meanings misses the point of his art. In Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag called for an erotics rather than a hermeneutics of art. That idea was inspired by her friend, artist Paul Thek, who got sick of Sontag’s clever theorising before artworks rather than doing what she should – namely, experiencing them and getting turned on by it. Bowie’s post- modern music similarly opposes itself to interpretation.

As for Thomas Jerome Newton, he never did make it back to his home planet. Captured by a rival entrepreneur, he is held in a luxury apartment and subjected to tests, one of which involves X-rays, which cause his contact lenses to become permanently fixed to his eyes. The mask freezes to his face, isomorphising his identity. Unable even to die, Newton faces an eternity territorialised.

Not long before his own death, Bowie returned to the role, writing songs for a musical called Lazarus and a song of the same name for his final album, Blackstar. The song is enigmatic, but since the author is dead and he is no longer the authority, perhaps we can attempt an interpretation. Perhaps Bowie as Lazarus, consigned to endless posthumous interpretation, would have preferred to have been left in peace. In any case, he had offered his own, albeit ironic, interpretation littered through his songs. ‘Ashes to Ashes’, for instance, seems to express frustration for Bowie’s de-territorialised, endlessly mutable personae, for the Sisyphean labour of endless strategising that a career of constructing new identities involves.

He sang:

I never done good things

I never done bad things

I never did anything out of the blue, woh-o-oh

Want an axe to break the ice

Wanna come down right now.

In this, we can imagine, he got to the point as a post-modern artist where he could perform his dissatisfaction at what being a post-modern artists entails: all masks and no authenticity, ubiquitous irony and forests of quotation marks. But with this twist: Bowie often added to his repertoire with the spiritually dissatisfied post-modern artist reflecting on the existential ramifications of a career spent as a chameleon.

That self-reflective role was often expressed in tragicomically self-destructive terms:

I was going round and round the hotel garage

Must have been touching close to 94

Oh, but I’m always crashing in the same car

I’m always crashing in the same car.

This was perhaps as much of a disappearing act as his other masks. Maybe Bowie was performing a post-modern persona –let’s call him ‘David Bowie’ – who wanted an axe to break the division between his roles and the real self behind them. But, for David Bowie, there was no axe and no way down, nothing but masquerade. Prefiguring how the internet might work as a masked ball in cyberspace, the masks became the man, interposing themselves indefinitely between us and whatever was behind. If there was anything. Or maybe the real David Bowie was just good at protecting his privacy.

- the above is an excerpt taken from Everything, All the Time, Everywhere: How We Became Postmodern by Stuart Jeffries, a radical new history of a dangerous idea.

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Postmodernism stood for everything modernism rejected: fun, exuberance, irresponsibility. But beneath its glitzy surface, postmodernism had a dirty secret: it was the fig leaf for a rapacious new kind of capitalism. It was the forcing ground of “post truth,” by means of which western values were turned upside down. But where do these ideas come from and how have they impacted on the world?

In this brilliant history of a dangerous idea, Stuart Jeffries tells a narrative that starts in the early 1970s and still dominates our lives today. He tells this history through a riotous gallery that includes, among others: David Bowie, the iPod, Madonna, Jeff Koons’s the Nixon Shock, Judith Butler, Las Vegas, Margaret Thatcher, Grand Master Flash, I Love Dick, the RAND Corporation, the Sex Pistols, Princess Diana, Grand Theft Auto, Jean Baudrillard, Netflix, and 9/11.

Everything, All the Time, Everywhere
But where do these ideas come from and how have they impacted on the world? In his brilliant history of a dangerous idea, Stuart Jeffries tells a narrative that starts in the early 1970s and cont...