The saddest day. The world has spent the last few hours pouring its heart out over how much Bowie meant to millions, young and old. He clearly meant a great deal to a great many people.
Yet, whether you’re a Bowie fan or not, for me, the most important thought to hold is the weight of his impact on modern culture. More specifically, his ability to redefine it – to shape-shift and confound expectations, to keep the creative art of modern pop culture alive and fresh. He wasn’t just the first at it, he was the best.
From his folk infused beginnings in the 60’s he reemerged with a shift out of nowhere, with his androgynous alter ego Ziggy. From there it was a continual process of invention and re-invention, through American soul, Electronica, 80’s pop, jungle, hip hop and finally to the end in Black Star. And his visual style, wardrobe and artwork spun in as many directions.
Within the world of music, we judge the great artists of our time by their ability to move on. This is why we love Radiohead and hate Oasis (correct?) These moves forward are often met with cynicism amongst those that expect the artist to redeliver to expectations. Then they catch up, and the artist moves on again.
From this we’ve got to ask ourselves – who else is there? Who continually challenges themselves and us? Who even comes close to the way Bowie kept us guessing? Who’s brave enough to enter into the unknown in quite the same way? You can argue that there isn’t so much space for pop culture to reinvent itself. We began the circle back around to the beginning during the 90’s (blame Oasis, again) and we don’t seem to have stopped going round and round since.
Only a handful of the most recent big artists have shown such transformative abilities: Madonna was a fantastic shape shifter. Bjork, Radiohead, Beck perhaps, but who else? Who’s doing it now? In a big way? Is it because we’ve run out of space, or is it because we’ve just become so good at feeding the echo chamber of modern culture? Are we just too good at giving people what we know they want? Has digital technology (and our ability to track, record, measure, evaluate, regurgitate) made us less likely to step into the unknown?
What’s the lesson? How can we honour the big guy? Here we go….take more risks!
I’ll leave on that note, not with another Bowie clip, but with some wise words from the late great comedian George Carlin. Like Bowie, he got it.