The Stars Are Out Tonight at Our Thoughtless Instigation
by Norman Ball
(originally appeared in Pop Matters here.)
“Here they are upon the stairs”
It remains to be seen whether a ghostly white superimposed Post-it Note will offer Wall enough to demarcate All Days Past from The Next Day. In an era when the Stones relentlessly seek to extend, exploit and parlay their accrued fame (as do legions of lesser legacy acts), David Bowie, ever the brave contrarian, is doing his level best to open the shutters on a fresh new day. But will our erstwhile “hero” be allowed a second vista?
If only strumming a guitar was even half the game. As it is, time and music enjoy an unconventional relationship that extends well beyond simply playin’ da notes. Philip Glass’ definition of music has shifted and evolved over the years in a manner that increasingly intuits the centrality of time’s passage while indirectly downplaying the trumpeted sound wave. Recently he’s taken to simply calling music a “place”. I might respectfully sharpen that to a “time and place”, that is, a proper four-dimensional nexus (which I suspect Glass may have meant anyway, allowing for conversational shorthand in the YouTube interview I watched.) In either case, the notion is that, while music can be revisited and perhaps waved at through an opaque rear window, it can never be fully resumed. True, sonic affections can be formed for music at any time. However, I wish to differentiate those timely few who managed to experience David Bowie’s (and other ‘70s artists’) music contemporaneously from those who encountered it after the moment of its cultural arrival when all Zeitgeist had fallen, wanking, to the carnival floor. Music is more than a sound and far more than a fungible shelf item. It is a discrete ‘non-reprisable’ confluence of time and place. The song cannot remain the same. Place makes different listeners of us all.
When is a step backwards ever even a tiny step in the right direction? Today’s young people, the better lazy ones, are forever extolling the music of the seventies while cursing the cruel belated accident of their births. You will hear them say, I wish I could have been there [in that place] or how did we get stuck with time-wasters like Nickelback? In this, they are the voyeurs of utter self-destruction. Don’t they know youth culture stands ready to be made first and only consumed later? Our kids must esteem themselves as something more than a standing reserve for SEGA and Nintendo. The future demands their undivided attention, not furtive peeks while trapped between the rocks of jealous screens.
Right now, a whole generation is being sacrificed to sound and vision pap. Even as it probably destroyed a generation of guitar gods, Guitar Hero was a cruelly efficient time machine for giving signature licks a second lease. So a bunch of geriatrics got another big swag of money. Love on them. At the risk of further piling onto youthful disaffection, I wanna say ‘hey kids, you can jockey the riffs on a guitar-shaped joystick all you want, but you can never HAVE the seventies. More important, why would you want them?’
Yes I know. Modern times are hard. But if Charlie Chaplin could get through them, we can too. During those long gray days of the past, my Grandad could not complete his barefoot, snow-capped, seven-mile trek to school without his iPod running out of juice. So no excuses Junior or Mick Jagger will happily dine on your moment. Don’t you get it? Jagger would give his right ball to have your Now. Beware the ever-spilling jealousies of yesteryear’s stars. Your job is to try and make them jealous of you as only youth can. Now quit rifling my LP’s, no you can’t have the car keys and go whip up your own fucking Zeitgeist. What have we allowed with our carpet-bound kids that we must order them to be rebellious?
The spirit of nostalgia hangs heavy over music because time’s arrow is blithely unidirectional. That’s also why Jagger evokes, more often than not today, an insectified Peter Pan entombed in prehistoric amber. Tour after tour, we are treated to déjà vu all over again. There goes Mick, famous for not quite dying. Hey, he’s got the right and, as modern peons remind us, he still has the moves. But his legendary dexterity is, at least in some part, a stillborn recitation from a past that can never authentically be resurrected. Much like a leathery oroborus administering itself a perpetual blow-job, Jagger is an old man forever betrothed to his recalcitrant teenager. As for venturing between or around this elemental lip-lock, no interceding female companion has ever won a long-term appointment. The self-love is complete and non-negotiable. Loving union with other human entities is at best a Balinese sham. Jagger’s time-terror is palpable. Clearly the fear of death can sell out stadia. Except in the most meretricious sense, does that make Mick’s full house any more valid on artistic grounds?
Within this battle of time-corridors, Bowie has bravely embraced a carpe diem strategy. He seems to understand the toxic clock-stoppedness of the fandom death-grip, and wishes to transcend it. Alas so many grown-up kids (covert Jaggerites) are prepared to kill the Man in order to recover the reveries of youth. For those too old to bear the sight of calendars, Ziggy is now the stuff of museum curators. To his credit, Jagger understands his product’s allure. (In this outing, I am Defender of the Arts. Jagger’s demonstrable genius just happens to lie elsewhere.) He must appear to defy time or else look like those other sad-sack legacy acts that can barely fill a community hall. Would it offend Jagger greatly to suggest his business case is more perma-fresh, Humperdinkian Vegas performer than dynamic, in-the-world artist? Probably not.
Okay, so the kids aren’t alright. When were they ever? Time to kick some old ass as there is plenty of inauthenticity to go round in the middlin’ demographic. The desire to employ our aging rock gods as time-shields is a coward’s tactic wrapped in a fool’s errand. Jagger’s wardrobe mistress is full of shit. There exists no spandex of sufficient tensile strength to suspend us all permanently above the abyss. One might consider then, authentic engagement within one’s golden years. Surely we’re still here for reasons other than to dote over our beloved Lester Bangs Creem collection or to school the kids in the joys of youthful exuberance. In times past, youth required no formal instruction.
I don’t wish to diminish the astute craft of songs-present, but there will never been another Moonage Daydream because there will never be—for you and me at least—another adolescence hungry for a soundtrack worthy of its raging hormones. (Here I am addressing my contemporaries, i.e. those more old than young.) Again, once upon a time it was about far more than the music; and, while I note the latter’s loosening cultural grip with great sadness, I am aware that perhaps my grandfather mourned the passing of Steeple Chases with equal melancholy. Enthusiasm is dead! Long live enthusiasm! My teenage son salivates over the pending release date of BioShock 3. I recognize his breathless anticipation even as I am a perfect stranger to his game-world. There goeth me but for the grace of Led Zeppelin IV.
Thus though the genre-du-jour may change, we will all bear, in our time, the discrete tattered remnants of our own irrepressible Moment of Youth. Moonage Daydream and Halo 4 are temporalities only—touchstones and ephemera of a tragic youth too soon lost. Relish the fumes by all means. But for God’s sake, keep moving. Bowie seeks to lead by example. Here is an honest photo that makes no bones about where he is now. For a performance artist whose physical beauty (certainly his visuality) was long regarded an essential ingredient of his art, surely this was a brave photo to part with. (I hasten to add I should only look so good at sixty-six.) Nonetheless I see it as representing a visceral and unadorned entreaty for us to join him in the march forward. Move or die. That would surely be an artist speaking, and not a botox-addicted celebrity of perpetually frozen countenance.
Fame notwithstanding, Bowie’s first-order sin has always been the commission of art. Nothing he has done in the last few weeks suggests otherwise. (Okay, there’s a canny PR campaign hovering about as well, which puts us somewhere in the star-crossed realm of meaningful commercial art, a Bowie stronghold.) Hardly an overt nostalgist, he has little choice nonetheless but to cite his past if only to blunt and subdue it. Just as Karl Marx is forever linked to Marxism (unfairly one might say), Bowie, however reluctant, is no less the elephant in his own room. He is also an artist whose later years happen to be coterminous with an odiously ascendant celebrity culture. Bowie the icon is rehashed endlessly in the culture-ether. At the same time Bowie, half-man, half-reflector panel, traipses through the very same mortal coil as you and I. We anonymous minions can forget ourselves and our youthful indiscretions. Bowie must reference his forever more. The past is continually banging at his door insisting it be let in. Resurgent royalties notwithstanding, this may be a peculiar kind of hell. Only his moccasins know for sure.
As an artist Bowie has traditionally expressed himself through the ironic foil of pop celebrity and stardom. Human stars (the ‘genuine’ ones, if that’s not too oxymoronic) are pernicious creatures with pantheonic designs. Though they loom ‘above us’ on marquees, they are the world’s worst exemplars. This is not inconsistent with the Greek gods. Can anyone think of a worse role model than Zeus? The stars’ allure is second only to their insecurities which are ours too, only writ larger. Moreover this outbound craving is borne of an infantile terror of Mommy not hearing their cries, poor little bastards. As babies the gods were often swaddled, then sent down rivers or hidden in caves, often as a means of protecting them from jealous fathers who ran prisons stacked with tragic youth. Thus Tom Cruise’s violent smile is nothing more than a dirty diaper with teeth. That’s also why they can anticipate every nocturnal squirm of ours as we toss and turn at night over our terrestrial affairs.
So forget the lurid tales of some unhinged nonentity digging through Madonna’s or Brad Pitt’s garbage. That is a narrow and discrete pathology for which people should rightly be detained. As you stand in the supermarket check-out line attending your journeyman appetites, who is peering at you from a dozen glossy magazine covers; also, who endowed relentless voyeurism with such ludicrous currency in the first place? It is we who are being stalked by them with pathologic intensity. Remember, the paparazzi (endless source of celebrity complaints) are part of their world, not ours. Each enriches the other in a flatulent symbiosis. Should the flashbulbs become too much, well, the final recourse for the beleaguered celebrity is to become a plumber or a florist. This they never do. Florio Sigismondi’s video of The Stars (Are Out Tonight) ingeniously muddies the traditional victim-perpetrator roles. We’re all implicated in this referential-mad hall of mirrors, the fame game.
So how do you handle strangers, stranger? Each of us can lay proper claim to billions of them. Yet imagine being governed by the insatiable need to curry their mass approval. Verily, the celebrity’s sad, servile existence never rests. The protagonists of the Sigismondi video, the aging man and wife (who, one suspects, are themselves past-life celebrity survivors) find themselves progressively stalked by their prior personae. Celebrity is death, or at the least Mick’s inner teenager on life-support. Even worse, it infects and deforms the ‘nice lives’ of regular people. I can hear our culture’s ebbing soul-content imploring both sides of the red carpet to reject fame first.
That is why here, on this very bed of electrons, I’m calling for a blanket restraining order against all fully advertised parties along with five years of enforced interiority with a moratorium on celebrity dirt and the gauzy frame. We are a culture of vampires circling a depleted blood-bank. Celebrity is an anemic false frame—’glamorous’ waifs puking their guts out in haute couture dressing rooms, all the while promised to the deadly lie of the Size One Chanteuse, when the reality (horrible word!) is acid-scorched esophagi and collar-bones belaboring parchment-skin. To all this, Bowie was always a canny straddler and split-screen ironist. There was Artist Bowie the Seer and Fashion Bowie the Liar. Has he finally toppled over into un-ironic art?
After that long-assed wedding toast, it’s time to face the music…
As songs, I’m struck by Where Are We Now? and The Stars (Are Out Tonight) in the context of their uncomplaining service to a larger artistic statement or narrative. Granted, my eyes were drawn into their cinematic star-turns before my ears could behold their naked shame. Isn’t vision often the entry point today for sound? So yes, they are right-sized for their respective roles as evocative and compelling soundtracks to the videos. Not content with simply killing the radio star, video installs a directorial prerogative on the music itself. The formidable imprimaturs of video directors Tony Oursler and Sigismondi are enough to give any sound wave pause. That’s why, ideally, I prefer hearing (and understanding) music before I see it lashed to video. Why not give the mind’s eye first crack and relieve the marketplace of one more boorish trespass? Instead, where songs were once platforms of pure unassisted imagination, we now ‘pick them on the screen, what they look like, where they’ve been.’ (Bowie 1975. Dang. When does prescience cross over into clairvoyance?)
There may be larger considerations afoot. Bowie could be signaling a shift towards a more seamless unity of vision. If so, we could see more music-video pairings from The Next Day, perhaps as a surrogate for touring. The simultaneous release of both song and video suggests a conscious gestalt as opposed to a stitched-together promotional afterthought. How exciting though if the artistic collective (1969’s Beckenham Arts Labs revisited?) becomes the next Bowie thing i.e. sublimating the marquee idol and persona factory for collaborative tours de force? These mini-productions may suggest a new direction.
[Note: As this essay was going to cyber press, I had the privilege of listening to the pre-release iTunes stream of The Next Day album twice in its entirety. Wow! WAWN and TSAOT reveal themselves anew within the context and pacing of the album. Suddenly their sonic fabric returns, rescinding all photographic evidence. What can I say except this album contains a series of necessary angels, songs that clearly had to be written. Bowie’s extended sabbatical replenished depleted tanks. Devoid of fillers and contract fulfillments, this music requires no video handrails. Still, the marriage of the two makes for compelling TV. Let’s hope for more. Great stuff!]
So, it’s kudos again to the video direction of Oursler for Where Are We Now? (I cover that video extensively here in Bright Lights Film Journal) and Sigismondi for The Stars (Are Out Tonight). Bowie is also blessed with some of the most gifted musicians on the planet: Earl Slick, Gail Ann Dorsey, Tony Visconti, Gerry Leonard, Zachary Alford, Sterling Campbell, David Torn. If we are witnessing a subtle portfolio shift towards ‘charismatic artistic director’, who other than Bowie is fearless enough—or less covetous of fame—to attempt such a deft denouement during this, his grand return?
Have I mentioned Kim Kardashian? Star-power ultimately dissipates like the gaseous, neurotic energy it is, perhaps detained briefly beyond its time with nips, tucks and softer lighting after which the Elysian Fields of infomercials and tell-all books can beckon for a while. Not so the White Goddess who exerts, over her poet charges, a far more pitiless trajectory. She stabs ahead, seeming rather to enjoy the collapsed wonderments left in her wake. Poets are routinely bereft by age 30.
Someone once said age is just a number, a heresy to which the 27-Club hastily assembled a celestial chorus in protest. At the very least by 50 age becomes a number with a stiff back. I’m getting too old myself to play the cheap, tawdry ageism card. I love kids. Though I never played one on TV, I was one once and liked it so much that I begat one too. I worry about them today with their too-ready acceptance of tailored entertainment packages, Facebook thumbs and cable tiers. I worry they mistake themselves for an old man’s divide-and-conquer game of markets and demographics when they are today’s representatives of a naïve, unbeholden force eager to surprise itself. I still cannot process the recent incalculable loss of Aaron Schwartz. The kids should be out in the streets given the magnitude of that theft. A familiar knife is plunged into the back of the future. Our fathers run the prisons. They block the waterfall.
Let’s be clear. Time belongs to the living—of all ages, even to respectful elders who are but tall wise children in our midst, after all. Thus despite all those conspiring to damn him with rearguard praise, Bowie deserves credit for bringing active grace to the ageless game of aging.