Is it possible to be a Bowie fan and not be an obsessive nut? Perhaps not. He’s a love-him-or-leave-him artist, as likely to provoke confusion and indifference as fierce loyalty. Being a casual fan is difficult because much of his music is difficult, falling well outside of mainstream popular taste. Bowie’s musical personality can also be forbidding: cool, even austere, overly intellectual at times, aesthetically aggressive, often avant-garde. So, for as many obsessive Bowie nuts as there are out there, there is an equal or greater number of people who don’t get what all the fuss is about, or just have never found a way into his music.
At some point in writing this piece, then, I realized that I have unconsciously been writing it for these people, trying to explain Bowie’s appeal somehow, to give them a way in. I don’t know if I have succeeded. In any case, his best work—‘Heroes’, ‘Space Oddity’, ‘Rebel Rebel’—has a directness that requires no explanation, and yet, like all truly great art, it also has a quality of strangeness that can never be totally assimilated no matter how familiar it becomes. And that is his greatest guarantor of lasting relevance and fame.
From story and character songs, to homage and pastiche songs, to collage and nonsense songs, there is no more prolific or promiscuous a songwriter in modern popular music than David Bowie. He left almost no genre and no style untouched, inventing several of his own along the way, and experienced substantial success in them all. But given that he was such a chameleon, one might be tempted to ask if any of his various incarnations was authentic or totally sincere.
A few years ago, in a period of deep infatuation with Joni Mitchell, I began to have precisely this doubt about Bowie. The music just didn’t resonate for me as it did when I was younger and more attracted to the avant-garde. It began to strike me as inauthentic, his whole career just a set of poses and postures with nothing ‘real’ or tangible – no vulnerability, no meaningful self-exposure – behind it.
Of course, I now realize that this was folly. By what standard can we judge the ‘authenticity’ or ‘sincerity’ of an artist for whom high artifice, the mixing of higher and lower forms, and the doctrine of Art for Art’s Sake were so central to his aesthetic sensibility? It’s like asking him to be some other kind of artist instead of being Bowie, and you just don’t do that. You don't ask Picasso to be someone else. It's an absurdity. You’re just grateful that there is a Picasso at all.
So what is the essence of Bowie’s aesthetic sensibility? Two Oscar Wilde quotes (at least one of which is featured in the Todd Haynes’ film ‘Velvet Goldmine’) go a long way toward illuminating it:
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
Bowie insisted in interviews, “I am not up here to be myself.” He flouted conventional notions of authenticity, embracing the fakeness of what he called “plastic soul”, for example. And then there were all those fictional personas, singing about Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, and at the same time physically embodying them on stage. All of which made him remote from us in a way that artists who stick to one persona (say, Bob Dylan) or write more transparently autobiographical songs (say, Joni Mitchell) are not. Until recently, I had trouble putting my finger on this distance. But I think it has to do with the ways Bowie deploys irony in his songs, even long after he stops playing characters on stage.
Oscar Wilde again: “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling. To be natural is to be obvious, and to be obvious is to be inartistic.” (In short: while all bad poetry is sincere, not all sincere poetry is necessarily bad.)
We should not expect direct, confessional ‘sincerity’ from Bowie, but it’s wrong to suggest for that reason that Bowie was insincere. His sincerity inevitably comes out in myriad other ways: in his obvious affection for the many styles of music he emulated—black American music in particular—and his championing of black artists (from the early too-white days of MTV to—most recently—his very high praise for Kendrick Lamar, and the inspiration Bowie drew from him on ‘Blackstar’). It comes out in his virtuosic musicianship and vocal performances. And it comes out in his fond, fierce and frequent covers of other people's songs. (Bowie never stopped being a fan or supporting artists he loved.)
Despite my suspicions about Bowie's sincerity, I have also had a formula in my head that said: Bowie is at his least interesting when he is most sincere. But this was also wrong, because at the same time, he bores me when he is at his most pretentious, when he is straining to be avant-garde, shocking, or edgy. I can appreciate some of Bowie’s nonsense songs (‘Diamond Dogs’, ‘Looking for Satellites’, ‘Girl Loves Me’) for their musical inventiveness and sense of play, but I am never going to care about them as much as I do his great story songs (‘Five Years’, ‘Life on Mars?’), or his epic ballads (‘Absolute Beginners’, ‘Can You Hear Me?’, ‘5:15 The Angels Have Gone’), or the flavour of Bowie I enjoy the most: what I want to call Bowie’s ‘ironic sincerity’ on songs like ‘Ashes to Ashes’, ‘A Better Future’, ‘Strangers When We Meet’, even ‘Black Tie White Noise’. (More on this to come.)
The High Priest of High Status
In the early homage song ‘Lady Stardust’, a celebration of the exotic and erotic glamour of Marc Bolan, Bowie clearly positions himself as an adoring fan. It is one of his most straightforwardly sincere songs, and so charming because of that. It also finds him in a relatively rare low-status position vis-à-vis the character he is singing about. But at that point in his career Bowie is already well on his way to being a bigger star than Bolan ever will be, and in an early suite of songs (‘Starman’, ‘Life on Mars?’, ‘Changes’, ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’, ‘Rebel Rebel’), he swiftly moves into the role of a high-status ally to the awkward kids, the freaks and geeks in his audience against the adults, the squares.
Take a close look at the language he uses in these songs—whether it’s the “god-awful small affair” of “the girl with the mousy hair” (in ‘Life on Mars’); or “the tacky thing”, the “tramp” whose “face is a mess” (in ‘Rebel Rebel’); or calling his audience “children” (in ‘Changes’ and ‘Starman’)—and you will see that he sets himself apart from them, occupies a position slightly above them. The language is full of terms of affection, but there is a hint of irony in that affection, owing to his superior status.
(There’s no room to go into it here, but for more detail on the literary nature of this type of irony, see Northrup Frye’s theory of literary modes.)
In ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ Bowie occupies a place between the adults and the rebellious children, telling them what they already know: “Oh, you pretty things, don't you know/ You’re driving your mother and fathers insane?” He flatters them by calling them “the start of the coming race,” and tells the parents they have to “make way for the homo superior.” He obviously sympathizes with these kids (deeply), for he too was such an alienated kid once, but he does so from a distance, a place of superior knowledge or experience. He will be their ringleader if they wish, but he is not exactly their peer. He’s already too famous for that.
Later on, when he pays homage to another hero in the song ‘Andy Warhol’, the innocent adoration of a fan is gone, replaced with a tinge of irony, implying superior status on Bowie’s part: “Andy Warhol looks a scream/ Hang him on my wall.” Who has status in that phrase: the artist doing the painting (Warhol), or the rich collector (Bowie) hanging him on the wall? The phrase ‘looks a scream’ has an unmistakable whiff of condescension to it, even if it is coming from a place of sincere admiration or affection. The unavoidable implication is that Warhol looks ridiculous, like a freak, which is doubtless part of why Warhol disliked the song (see Victor Bockris’s great book ‘The Life and Death of Andy Warhol’).
Interestingly, the consistent casting of Bowie in high-status roles is also evident in his film and theatre work. Think of the characters he plays and ask yourself, what is their status? Pontius Pilate (the killer of Christ), Andy Warhol (the most famous visual artist of the post-war era), Nikola Tesla (pioneer of electricity), the alien Thomas Newton in ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ (who is literally above us, but just for good measure he also becomes a corporate tycoon here on Earth), the Goblin King in ‘Labyrinth’, the immortal vampire John in ‘The Hunger’. They are all powerful, high-status characters.
Even in apparently degraded roles, such as Jack Celliers in ‘Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence’, he assumes high status. As a prisoner of war he has high status because he is white, Western, beautiful, and morally superior to his captors – the beastly, inhuman representatives of Imperial Japan. (Indeed, the moral superiority of captives vis-à-vis their captors is a trope of the prisoner-of-war genre.) In ‘The Elephant Man’, John Merrick is someone who proves his worth in the face of appalling degradation: he rises to high status against a world that assigns him low status because he is deformed. In the Brechtian anti-hero of ‘Baal’, we have the quintessential romantic anti-hero, who, by flouting all of society’s morals and conventions, places himself above the bourgeois norm – as artists and poets have done for centuries. And Bowie fits right in.
I’m not saying that David Jones/Bowie – the human being – thinks of himself as better than all us mere mortals. What I’m saying is that the ‘David Bowie’ persona is a high-status persona. Bowie is exceptional. There is no point casting him as a ‘regular’ guy. For the same reason, his songs work best when he adopts a high-status posture toward his subject matter, which has an ironizing effect, whether it’s a character he is telling a story about, or – sometimes – a version of himself. Most remarkably, this is true even on ‘Blackstar’, when the real David Bowie that he’s commenting on – that is, ironizing – is dying of cancer. (More on this to come.)
Bowie sends up the genre of the character song in a charming late-career cameo on Ricky Gervais’ ‘Extras’. The whole premise of ‘Extras’ requires Gervais – playing a C-list, low-status actor – to be routinely humiliated and upstaged by high-status guest stars, usually playing themselves. Bowie plays into this perfectly, mocking Gervais at a party with a hilarious improvised song:
“Little fat man who sold his soul
Little fat man who sold his dream
Pathetic little fat man
No one's bloody laughing
The clown that no one laughs at
They all just wish he'd die…”
It ends with everyone at the party singing the refrain: “See his pug-nosed face.” (Watch it here.) But why does this joke song fit so well into the Bowie canon? What kind of Bowie song is it parodying? It works and is funny because it is not far from many of Bowie’s character songs, in which he almost always adopts a posture of affectionate condescension – that is, of irony.
A signal example is ‘Slip Away’, in which a washed-up entertainer “drags his bones to see the Yankees play” and ponders how fame, wealth, status can all slip away so easily. A similar mood is struck in ‘Valentine’s Day’, which has a solid pop melody, but is accompanied by an almost sarcastic delivery. Bowie’s high-status stance toward the character of Valentine is made clear by the description of his “scrawny hands” and “icy heart.”
This comes, I think, out of an almost Dickensian sensibility – Dickens being the master of the sentimental character sketch – and is informed by those same strains of 19th-century naturalism and romanticism that brought sympathetic portraits of socially disadvantaged or marginal subjects into mainstream fiction.
An early, sentimentally pathetic song in this vein is the unusually vulnerable and direct ‘Conversation Piece,’ which sounds substantially autobiographical. He re-recorded it in 2002, and the tone of almost maudlin self-pity (“I can’t see the water for the rain in my eyes”) becomes almost comical in the voice of the elder Bowie, looking back on a younger, more naïve self. The song makes a pathetic and quaintly inaccurate prediction about his future (“I'm invisible and dumb and no one will recall me”), which can’t help but sound ironic now. If the blues indulges in sincere self-pity in search of soulful pathos, Bowie only ever indulges in ironic self-pity in search of a kind of gently (self-)satirizing pathos.
Even when Bowie is paying homage to a pop form he obviously loves, he does it ironically. Listen to Bowie and his backup vocalists harmonizing to doo-wop nonsense phrases out of the 1950s on songs like ‘Always Crashing In The Same Car’, ‘Absolute Beginners’, ‘Valentine’s Day’, even ‘Starman’ (written to correct the absence of a radio-friendly hit on his great ‘Ziggy Stardust’ album), and you will hear an almost sarcastic twang in his voice, acknowledging with a wink and a snarl the fundamental silliness of singing ‘Sha-la-la-la-la’ and ‘Oooh-wop-wop-wop-wa-oooh’. Affectionate, ironic, sincere—all at the same time. That’s Bowie’s signature pop sound.
Incidentally, the blues was one of the few genres Bowie couldn’t really touch, precisely because it is a fundamentally sincere, confessional genre. ‘Jean Genie’ is based on a classic blues riff, but it is does not employ a traditional blues lyric; it’s a Bowie character song.
But while the blues eluded him he did have a good deal of success with (his version of) soul music. The term “plastic soul” was originally a pejorative leveled against Mick Jagger and artists like him for ripping off black music. The implication is obvious: soul music in white mouths is ‘fake’, ‘phony’, ‘plastic’, just a put-on, a pose – not sincere, not authentic. But Bowie took the term up proudly, giving it to his soul-influenced mid-70s sound, which he – ironically – said represented “the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak, written and sung by a white limey” (Wikipedia.)
Rather than be drawn into a sterile debate about authenticity and appropriation, he simply embraces the fakeness of it, makes a virtue of it, trusting the listener to hear the sincerity in the infectious musicality and passionate vocal delivery of his ‘plastic soul’ masterpiece ‘Young Americans’.
Plastic soul also gave Bowie a chance to feature the saxophone, an instrument he played from the early 1960s onward, and when he does the sincerity factor goes way up. ‘Can You Hear Me?’ is a key song, I think, because there is no doubt that it is utterly sincere. To me it’s Bowie really ripping into being a soul singer for the first time, free of the verbal ironies even of the great song ‘Young Americans’, in which he schools and scolds his amnesiac American listeners: “Do you remember your President Nixon?/ Do you remember the bills you have to pay/ Or even yesterday?”)
And yet, even on as gorgeously soulful a track as ‘Can You Hear Me?’ he can’t do it straight. Listen to the hiccupping way he sings the second verse (“There's been many others/ Oo-oo-oo-oohh, so many times”) and you will hear a highly affected performance. But what would the song be without these sometimes-exaggerated vocal inflections?
In contrast, one of Bowie’s flattest, most boring songs, ‘Thursday’s Child’, suffers precisely from the opposite: being done absolutely ‘straight’. There’s no edge to it, no angle, no commentary – ironic or otherwise. It needs more of what the album ‘Young Americans’ has in spades: it needs more theatre.
(This theatrical quality to his voice is one of the reasons Bowie is a lot of fun to do at karaoke, because it is relatively easy to imitate, and fun to exaggerate. His performance on ‘Let’s Dance’ is one of the most affected, and entertaining, which makes it a karaoke classic.)
So, in the spirit of “fake it till you make it”, what begins as an imitation of an authentic soul voice, becomes sonorous and profound over time as Bowie ages into the role of a genuine crooner, even when what he is crooning about remains obscure, even nonsensical. (I defy anyone to tell me what ‘Bring Me The Disco King’ is about, but it sounds great.) He sells song after song – especially in his late period – with the sheer richness of his mature vocal delivery, regardless of whether or not we understand what the lyrics may or may not be about.
Love in the End Times & Ironic Sincerity
What then of love songs in the Bowie oeuvre, surely one of the most fundamentally sincere song forms? Soberly lamenting the loss of love is easy enough to do without getting too saccharine (‘Love is Lost’, ‘5:15 The Angels Have Gone’). Happy love songs are harder to pull off, and there are very few in Bowie’s oeuvre. Here’s Chris O’Leary, an expert without peer on Bowie’s songwriting:
“Bowie’s public relationship with love is one of a man who’s never shaken his suspicions. There were times when he’d write a 'Letter to Hermione' or a ‘Be My Wife’ in his soul’s winter hours, ‘The Wedding’ to crown a summertime. But the garden-variety love song has rarely interested him, nor has he done them well.”
Many of his love songs tell a similar story, that of the Abject Lover Prostrating Himself Before His Love, in which he lowers himself, ironically, to make himself worthy. (These would include ‘I Would Be Your Slave’, ‘China Girl’, ‘The Wedding Song’, ‘Boss of Me’.) But we still see him taking up high-status roles everywhere in these songs. He’s “a wreck” without his ‘China Girl’, but he is still the high-status foreigner with “visions of swastikas in his head” and “plans for everyone.” On ‘Boss of Me’ it’s straightforward: “Who’d have ever thought of it?/ Who’d have ever dreamed/ That a small-town girl like you/ Would be the boss of me?”—‘me’ being the high-status lover.
In ‘The Wedding Song’ he infantilizes and ironizes against himself: “I’m gonna be so good/ Just like a good boy should/ I’m gonna change my ways/ Angel for life.” Bowie makes a pledge of purity (usually the bride’s obligation), acknowledging he’s been around the block numerous times, and with questionable companions. But he’s wearing the ironically sincere smile/smirk of a once naughty young man promising his new love to be “a good boy”.
Bowie also invents what we might call the Apocalyptic Ballad, and its basic trope is two lovers pitted against a pitiless world. Examples include ‘Slow Burn’ (“Where shall we live in this terrible town?/ Where the price for our eyes shall squeeze them tight like a fist”), ‘Strangers When We Meet’ (“All my violence, raining tears upon the sheet/ I’m resentful, for we’re strangers when we meet”), and in a much lighter vein ‘Absolute Beginners’ (“As long as we’re together / The rest can go to hell”). The darkness of the setting is the antidote to any saccharine sentimentality, and Bowie is free to ooze sincerity in the passionate delivery of the often bleakly pessimistic lyrics. They’re some of Bowie’s most beautiful and affecting songs.
We’ve already looked at a few of his anthems—‘Rebel Rebel’, ‘Changes’, ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’—and the types of irony to be found in them. (Others would include ‘Rock’n’roll Suicide’, ‘All The Young Dudes’, ‘Under Pressure’, and of course the great ‘Heroes’.) An anthem is a song to sing along to, a song to inspire, and thus a fundamentally sincere song form. But there is more than enough darkness on ‘Under Pressure’ (“Keep coming up for love but it’s so slashed and torn”) to undercut any sentimentality, making room for passionate sincerity as “Love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night.” It is one of Bowie’s most rousing vocal performances. How could it not be, given that it’s a duet with one of the most impassioned voices in rock, Freddie Mercury?
Even in ‘Heroes’, one of the most unalloyed anthems in all of Bowie’s oeuvre, we have the line: “We can be heroes just for one day.” A real hero is, or ought to be, recognized for years – perhaps for all time. A hero for one day is almost a kind of joke, a virtual negation of heroism—at minimum, an ironic kind of heroism.
Another quasi-anthem, and another duet, is ‘Black Tie White Noise’, Bowie’s meditation on the 1991 L.A. Riots, and a plea for racial peace. (Don’t watch the badly dated video; just listen to the lyrics, and enjoy the Marvin Gaye-inspired pop-soul sound.) From the first line—“Getting my facts from a Benetton ad/ Looking through African eyes”—we know two things: the subject matter is serious (race politics in America), and the approach is ironic (what fool thinks that provocative advertisements, like Olivero Toscani’s famous Benetton campaigns, make real social problems go away?).
And yet, and yet, the song oozes ‘plastic soul’ sincerity, as if some part of Bowie does want to believe pop songs and socially conscious ad campaigns make a difference—otherwise, why write this song or any other?
“Reach out over race and hold each other's hands
Walk through the night thinking We are the World
Woo-hoo-hoo, What's going on?
There'll be some blood no doubt about it
But we'll come through, don't doubt it
I look into your eyes and I know you won't kill me
But I wonder why
Yes, I wonder why sometimes”
The ‘We Are the World’ reference has to be ironic, puncturing the balloon of celebrity pretense. The ‘What’s Going On’ reference, however, has to be sincere. It’s one of the great pop protest songs, from arguably the greatest pop soul singer, Marvin Gaye, and Bowie is obviously a fan. It’s an homage, but not without an admixture of doubt as to the efficacy of pop songs in changing the world.
“They'll show us how to break the rules
But never how to make the rules
Reduce us down to witless punks
Fascist cries both black and white,
Who's got the blood,
Who's got the gun?”
Bowie’s despair is obvious (and obviously sincere), giving the Marvin Gaye reference a bitter ring: Gaye’s plea for racial harmony went unheeded, and both songs are unfortunately just as relevant today, given the context of Ferguson, Trayvon Martin, and a steady stream of police shootings of unarmed young black men.
2002’s ‘Heathen’ is readily read as Bowie’s post-9/11 album, and furnishes a number of examples of what I am calling his ‘ironic sincerity’. The lyrics and the mournful, even funereal tone of the opening track, ‘Sunday,’ are suggestive of this: “For in truth, it’s the beginning of nothing/ And nothing has changed/ Everything has changed.”
One of my favourites from this album, ‘Everyone Says Hi’, is a relatively light, pop number, full of postcard clichés, and I think sincere at its roots, but once again the language and the delivery alerts us that he is being deliberately ironic: “Everyone says, ‘Hi’/ And your mom and dad/ and your big fat dog.”
Among many great songs, however, ‘A Better Future’ is a stand-out track, with Bowie singing in a forlorn vibrato: “How many tears must fall?/ Down there below/ Nothing is moving.” He had become a new father again in August of 2000, so we can imagine who and what he was thinking about, as a long-time resident of Manhattan, when he wrote:
“Please don't tear this world asunder
Please take back this fear we're under
I demand a better future […]
Give my children sunny smiles
Give them moon and cloudless sky
I demand a better future […]”
The childlike naïveté in these lines, and the jangly, upbeat (if minor key) arrangement of the song has its own ironic edge to it. It’s as if Bowie is writing from the perspective of a child (his own infant daughter? a child version of himself?) brought into this scary, threatening world, and telling her parents—or her country?—in no uncertain terms: “I demand a better future/ or I might just stop loving you.”
We hear and feel Bowie grieving for his adopted city of New York on this the best of his later period albums, but there is still a wink and flash of irony in his eye. He is still wearing a mask, and it enables him to tell us the truth.
Finally, one of Bowie’s greatest songs ‘Ashes to Ashes’ – which I have always interpreted as a meditation on his own recovery from cocaine addiction – has to be one of the most radically self-reflexive pop songs ever written, as it references one of his own earlier songs (‘Space Oddity’) and a fictional character therein (Major Tom). It’s also the best example of how in telling third-person stories, Bowie actually reveals himself (if ironically).
“Do you remember a guy that's been
in such an early song?
I've heard a rumour from Ground Control
Oh no, don't say it's true […]
Ashes to ashes, funk to funky
We know Major Tom's a junkie
Strung out in heaven's heights
Hitting an all-time low…”
He is thus able to ironically contrast the same fictional persona at two different stages of his career—as the astronaut hero of ‘Space Oddity,’ and then as a washed-up junkie a decade later—thereby indirectly exposing his own struggles with drug addiction. It’s an astonishing conceit, married to a great melody, a syncopated rhythm, and a quirky, ethereal electronic arrangement too weirdly original to sound dated even now.
‘Space Oddity’ and ‘Ashes to Ashes’ thus represent two space-age bookends for Bowie’s most fertile decade of music making, both story songs, both deeply ironic. As Chris O’Leary argues, ‘Ashes to Ashes’ signals the end of the Bowie persona, after which the ‘real’ David Bowie can finally come to the fore.
Strip away all of the pretence, the posing, the dressing up as high-status characters (or singing about low-status ones), the ironizing and the sarcasm, and you have one of my favourite all-time Bowie songs, ‘Sound and Vision’, a song that seems to be about nothing so much as the love of music itself. It is a remarkably simple, totally infectious song. And for a guy whose work was so often so tinged with darkness, it is one of the few ‘feel good’ Bowie songs. You can’t hear it and not want to get up and dance. In that sense, it is the purest—and least ironic—expression of Bowie’s simple love of his craft.
The Meaning of ‘Blackstar’
So what then of ‘Blackstar,’ this odd, gloomy, and short album—only seven songs—that appeared more or less unheralded on his birthday and now has to bear the weight of its close association with his death? Is it his ‘Greatest Album Ever’, as some grieving fans require it be? (That would be a pretty incredible claim after a career like his.) Is it even very good, or is it just another entirely competent late-career record that—no matter how good—will never outshine any of his numerous classics? Is it Bowie singing his own funeral oratorio, and if so, can we expect many new fans to get on board at such a grim point of entry?
I think the answer is: whatever you decide or need ‘Blackstar’ to be, it is.
I’ve listened to it I don’t know how many times now, and I think it is safe to say that ‘Blackstar’ passes the only test that matters in pop music: can you groove to it? Do you find yourself unconsciously humming or singing it to yourself? I do, and I can. It is richly rewarding for any long-term Bowie fan, each song having the ‘flavour’ of a different period of his lengthy career. The tunes are surprisingly catchy when you live with them a while and let them get under your skin, even the very long ‘Blackstar’ itself. It already feels like an old friend, something to return to in years to come and marvel at Bowie’s playfulness, even in the face of death.
But what is the album about? Like many, I rushed to read it as a meditation on imminent death—certainly a very plausible reading, given the references to death in the video for ‘Blackstar’ and the painful-to-watch video for ‘Lazarus’, which features Bowie literally writhing on his imagined deathbed. Inevitably, a small cottage industry began to form online of people poring over the lyrics, busily assembling references and theories as to what ‘Blackstar’ means. My fear was that the album would never get out of the shadow of the death that so quickly followed its release.
Is the idea of a ‘black star’ a reference to a cancerous lesion? Is it a dying star that is about to collapse into a black hole? And is Bowie that dying star? Is Bowie singing, in the first person, as God (or Death?): “I'm the Great I Am”? Or is Bowie rewriting the Elvis Presley song ‘Black Star’—“Every man has a black star… over his shoulder / And when he sees his black star / he knows his time has come”? (After all, they shared the same birthday, and Bowie was a huge fan.) Is he talking about the stereotyping and often tragic early deaths of black celebrities: “I’m a black star, I’m not a gangsta”? Or the ephemeral nature of celebrity itself: “Somebody else took his place and bravely cried, ‘I'm a Blackstar’ ”)? All of these are provocative, even plausible. But lets we insist on too pointedly autobiographical a reading of either song, it’s worth remembering that both were written for other projects: ‘Blackstar’ the theme song to the TV show ‘The Last Panthers’, and ‘Lazarus’ as part of a stage musical that continues the story of ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’.
It’s also worth noting that, even in the face of death, Bowie is still gravitating to the high-status roles. Death is the ultimate demotion to low-status, one any of us would resist. As Bowie does: in ‘Lazarus’ he promotes himself immediately to heaven: “Look up here, man, I’m in heaven”, that is, the high-status of life-after-death immortality, rather than the intolerable diminution of being a mere corpse. The drama of his theatrical exit from this existence is his final triumph: “I’ve got drama [that] can’t be stolen / Everybody knows me now.”
Similarly, if ‘Blackstar’ is a metaphor for the figure of death itself, Bowie gravitates to that powerful, high-status role—proclaiming over and over: “I’m a Blackstar”—rather than identifying with the dying man, who he sings about in the third person (“Something happened on the day he died…”), as I many of his great story songs of the past. And what other reading is possible of the great lines in ‘Blackstar’ (highlighted by Toronto Star critic Ben Rayner)—“You’re a flash in the pan / I’m the Great I Am”—than a militant reclamation of high-status in the face of death?
Note that there are at least two ways to read these lines: as a hip-hop style boast – “You (my competitors) are just flashes in the pan / I (Bowie) am the Great I Am”, or – just as plausibly – “You (Bowie) are just a flash in the pan / I (Death) am the Great I Am” – the irony being that Bowie here sings in the voice of the awesome power that negates him. And yet, nothing will negate his fame, and the fabulous, immortal body of work he leaves behind, which is his lasting claim to the high-status of a Great Artist.
However, to grasp on to a specific ‘meaning’ to the song—and the album—is, I think, a mistake. Certainly, having played so many fictional roles on stage over the years, we shouldn’t expect him transparently confessional songwriting from him, even at this late and desperate hour. If ‘Blackstar’ is about him, it is indirect, by way of a character. According to the director, you have a choice of three in the video: ‘Button Eyes’, the flamboyant trickster and the priest guy.
It is just a hunch, but after listening to the song repeatedly, I suspect that Bowie is in fact playing with us. The song doesn’t MEAN anything specific, or it means whatever you want it to. It can’t possibly be meant seriously. “On the day of execution…” (as the second verse begins) would just be too pompously self-important a metaphor, like John Lennon’s overheated reference to being “crucified” in ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’. Bowie was too sly an ironist to eulogize himself like this. I think he’s coming at it from another direction entirely.
I think he’s having us on. He’s rammed the song—and the accompanying video—so full of seemingly (maybe deceptively?) significant references and hints that it’s a kind of game, a mystery box with no solution, an escape room with no key—or a thousand different keys, all jumbled up in a drawer, impossible to sort out (but what a pretty picture they make.) He meant to send us hunting down all these clues and continually coming to dead ends, if you’ll pardon me the accidental pun. (I’m sure Bowie would.) Even its bloated length of 10 minutes—it’s essentially two very tonally different songs stitched together in the middle—could be read as a comic/ironic gesture, a giant winking pretense. And he gets the last laugh. It’s an epic about NOTHING—and EVERYTHING—and what could be a better summation of his career than that?
In any case, as soon as it’s over, we are thrust right into track two, ‘’Tis A Pity She Was a Whore’ (an ironic title if ever there was one), and it finds Bowie back in the mood to just rock out and jam. I defy you not to bop your head or tap your toe to that saxophone solo.
In short, I think—amidst the inevitable gloom—Bowie is having a lot more fun and being a lot more playful on ‘Blackstar’ than anyone who listens to it as a kind of premonitory funeral album will have. And that makes me happy, because it means the album can and will survive its association with Bowie’s death as something other than merely a signifier of his shockingly sudden, even traumatic demise.
‘Blackstar’ has also helped me to re-evaluate and appreciate the merits of ‘The Next Day’. As I listen to it again I have warmer feelings for Bowie’s penultimate album. There are more good pop-rock songs on it than I had remembered, and it reflects a period in which he was relatively healthy and vital, the album’s aggressive rock stance proclaiming: ‘I’m still alive and I can still rock.’
As The New Yorker review observed, on ‘Blackstar’s touching final track, ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, Bowie perhaps comes close to a personal assessment of his what he has achieved, and how he has achieved it—by indirection:
“Seeing more but feeling less
Saying no but meaning yes
This is all I ever meant
That’s the message that I sent
I can’t give everything away…”
What is that but a confession of his inability to confess? He has to hold something back, keep something for himself.
The sad thing is that there will be no more new music, though there is doubtless a lengthy backlog of unreleased work. For the past 20 years or so that I have followed his career, every new release has been an occasion to go back, listen again, and reassess parts of his catalogue. We won’t be prompted to do that again.
But, then, his style was so unpredictable and ever-changing that, more than once, I have heard what I thought was a new Bowie song—on the radio or a friend’s mix-tape—only to discover it was 20 or 30 years old. I hope to continue having those experiences, even now. So not being familiar with the whole of Bowie’s back catalogue is probably a good thing. It means there is still a lot of ‘new’ Bowie left to discover.