David Bowie’s Radicalism

The artist blew our minds wide open.

Sarah Jaffe September 25, 2014

David Bowie performs live in 1973 (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images).

Philoso­pher Simon Critch­ley starts off his new book, Bowie, by intro­duc­ing us to David Bowie the way he dis­cov­ered him: July 6, 1972, on the BBC’s Top of the Pops,” in a cat­suit with spiked orange hair and make­up, singing a song about a man come down from the stars. Critch­ley was 12. Lat­er, his moth­er bought the sin­gle they had heard, Star­man,” and when he played it the first time, the sheer bod­i­ly excite­ment of that noise was almost too much to bear.”

Critchley finds something important in Bowie’s costumes and alien characters: permission to do something other than grow up in suburbia and get a 9-to-5 job.

Bowie, now 67, has put out 26 stu­dio albums, jump­start­ed (and killed) gen­res, and shaped the course of rock n’ roll. His first album came out in 1967; his lat­est, after a 10-year hia­tus, was released in 2013. It is impos­si­ble to say how many artists he’s influ­enced. When rock was dom­i­nat­ed by mas­cu­line swag­ger in the 1970s, Bowie shat­tered a generation’s ideas about gen­der and sex­u­al­i­ty, first by per­form­ing in long hair and dress­es, then in char­ac­ter as the alien mes­sen­ger Zig­gy Star­dust, in glit­ter stage make­up and that famous orange hair — not to men­tion a sig­na­ture move onstage where he’d sim­u­late fel­la­tio on band­mate Mick Ronson’s guitar.

Critch­ley finds some­thing impor­tant in Bowie’s cos­tumes and alien char­ac­ters: per­mis­sion to do some­thing oth­er than grow up in sub­ur­bia and get a 9‑to‑5 job. There is a world of peo­ple,” Critch­ley writes, for whom Bowie was the being who per­mit­ted a pow­er­ful emo­tion­al con­nec­tion and freed them to become some oth­er kind of self, some­thing freer, more queer, more hon­est, more open, and more exciting.” 

Many crit­ics (Lester Bangs, for instance) have made the mis­take of read­ing Bowie as all image — a chameleon with no sub­stance. But Critch­ley, who teach­es phi­los­o­phy at the New School of Social Research in New York and has writ­ten books on sub­jec­tiv­i­ty and the ethics of decon­struc­tion,” is explic­it­ly opposed to the idea of rock authen­tic­i­ty.” Even the struc­ture of Bowie—an eclec­tic lit­tle pock­et-sized vol­ume of short essays, illus­trat­ed with sketch­es by Eric Han­son, and inter­wo­ven with sto­ries from Critchley’s life and with med­i­ta­tions on art, music, iden­ti­ty, and life itself — argues against nar­ra­tive uni­ty or a sta­ble iden­ti­ty. 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,” Critch­ley writes.

Embrac­ing that real­i­ty of illu­sion” allows us to find free­dom and plea­sure in try­ing on dif­fer­ent iden­ti­ties and cast­ing them off when they no longer fit. Just as Bowie seem­ing­ly rein­vent­ed him­self with­out lim­its,” Critch­ley writes, he allowed us to believe that our own capac­i­ty for changes was limitless.”

Arguably, this capac­i­ty for change goes beyond just the indi­vid­ual, though read­ing Bowie’s lyrics for an explic­it polit­i­cal mes­sage is like­ly to frus­trate the lit­er­al-mind­ed left­ist. The artist has long favored the poet­ic over the polemic, and Critch­ley is right in observ­ing that Bowie’s lyrics are at their strongest when they are most oblique.” In Life on Mars?”, a haunt­ing track from the 1971 record Hunky Dory, Bowie sings, It’s on America’s tor­tured brow/​That Mick­ey Mouse has grown up a cow/​Now the work­ers have struck for fame/’Cause Lennon’s on sale again.” We might read this as a com­men­tary on fame or a cri­tique of Amer­i­can con­sumerism or, if so inclined, evi­dence of Bowie’s hid­den labor pol­i­tics. What we can’t do is say for sure what it means, yet its col­lec­tion of arrest­ing imagery hints at some­thing big beneath the surface.

In Bowie, Critch­ley, sim­i­lar­ly, is less inter­est­ed in mak­ing an explic­it argu­ment than in writ­ing some­thing beau­ti­ful. And yet Critchley’s read­ing of Bowie’s work does argue for find­ing rad­i­cal­ism there. Just for an instant, for the dura­tion of a song, a seem­ing­ly sil­ly, sim­ple, puerile pop song, we can decre­ate all that is crea­ture­ly (or Critch­ley) about us,” Critch­ley writes, and imag­ine some oth­er way of exist­ing, some­thing utopian.”

In part, it is Bowie’s fas­ci­na­tion with dystopias that helps bridge the per­son­al and polit­i­cal, tak­ing us from glit­ter make­up to utopi­an imag­in­ings. His post-apoc­a­lyp­tic land­scapes cap­ture the deeply human fears beneath the spe­cif­ic para­noias of dif­fer­ent ages; Bowie instills a human long­ing, Critch­ley notes, into some­thing big and ter­ri­fy­ing, search­ing for love as the world crum­bles. His dystopias still seem well-suit­ed to our present moment, when it feels like every­thing is falling apart. Five Years,” a song about the count­down to the end of the world, seems to echo the relent­less tick of cli­mate change; Dia­mond Dogs,” with its descrip­tion of shat­tered glass and bro­ken build­ings, sum­mons up the dein­dus­tri­al­ized cities where a job is a dream long dead.

But in imag­in­ing the end of every­thing, Bowie opens up a space to con­ceive of some­thing rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent. If, as Fredric Jame­son famous­ly said, it is eas­i­er to imag­ine the end of the world than to imag­ine the end of cap­i­tal­ism, what can we imag­ine if we push past the end of the world? Bowie’s mul­ti­plic­i­ty of char­ac­ters and worlds, his offer­ing up of not just one alter­na­tive, but many, makes the few, cir­cum­scribed choic­es we’re offered seem woe­ful­ly inad­e­quate. In change, alien­ation and even destruc­tion, we dis­cov­er our infi­nite poten­tial for creation.

Sarah Jaffe is a for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of Nec­es­sary Trou­ble: Amer­i­cans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kel­ley called The most com­pelling social and polit­i­cal por­trait of our age.” You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @sarahljaffe.
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