13 January 2016

Art Decade (Coda)

Some straggling, tangential thoughts; re legacy, canonization, etc....

Monday’s news eventually had me reaching for England Is Mine, Michael Bracewell’s lenghty rumination about the role of dandyism in shaping Anglo modernist cultural history. Flipping to the section where he addresses the Glam years of the early 1970s, in which the author frames Bowie and Roxy Music as staging some variety of sci-fi musical revue for the nuclear age:

“Hot on Bowie’s stacked heels were Roxy Music, who mingled science and artifice into a cabaret futura of decadent romance -- playing with nostalgia as Bowie played with the future. [...]

And yet Roxy Music and David Bowie, throughout the first half of the 1970s,...propounded notions of time travel that were heavily tinged with death, disorientation and decay. From Bowie’s ‘Five Years’, as an imagined response to the imminent end of the world, to Roxy Music’s ‘The Bob Medley’ (1972) in which the strains of an interior elegance are drowned out by gun-fire, the ultimate destination of their glamour was shaped by a romantic sense of mortality -- a plastic Keatsian ‘half in love with easeful death’. This strong sense of death beneath glamour...would be crucial to those post-punks who looked to the Glam age for their own aesthetic of death, dehumanization and Weimar decadence. As the sensual images of pin-up girls and swooning sirens on the covers of Roxy Music’s first four LPS hovered close to pornography, so too did their music move closer to the gloriously lurid, subverted by a arcane knowingness which crystallized their luxurious image into a sealed world of erotic melodrama: Edith Piaf meets Helmut Newton. Ferry -- ever the trend-setter -- would drop into German on the goose-stepping chorus line of ‘Lullaby’ (1974) to proclaim that the end of the world was nothing when one was stranded between love and art, thus setting into place, more or less, the entire agenda of New Romanticism.”

(At which point some readers might elect to supplant that “more or less” with a “for better or for worse.” No matter, Bracewell continues...)

“In terms of drama, David Bowie and Roxy Music turned pop concerts into rallies and Goth-Futurist theater, with the trashy rock-’n’-roll finding a natural home between the atmospheric, synthesized soliloquies of love and loss. Bowie singing ‘Sweet Thing’, as a lover lost in an urban future, could compete with Bryan Ferry singing ‘In Every Home a Heartache’ as a lover lost in Harrods; Roxy Music’s ‘A Song for Europe’, with its punning on the Bridge of Sighs, fitted nicely with Bowie’s double serenading of Jean Genet and Iggy Pop in ‘Jean Genie’. A whole new language had been invented for radical English pop, a kind of neo-Platonic plutonium plush, which was a world and a time away from the previous tyranny of American rockism over pop cool.”

Many of the Bowie obits and tributes that piled up on Monday and the following day featured the same component -- the blahblahblahing about the scope and extent of the artist’s influence on so much music that came afterward. Which prompted me to think about something I said in my prior post, the admission that I had gone nearly 25 years without listening to Bowie, without having much reason to think of him. Perhaps that was in some way testament to the degree of his cultural influence; that it was -- in certain aspects -- so pervasive in the pop industry (once again for better or worse) that it became all to easy to take that influence for granted -- it became such an inherent given, such an element of the environment that it like some sort of cultural wallpaper that was there when you moved into the premises, and long ago stopped noticing.

And the lazier tributes making it sound like Bowie was Glam rock, all but claiming that he’d invented it. Much like the lazy accounts of Pop Art that have it all beginning and ending with Andy Warhol. Like Warhol, Bowie was a somewhat late arrival on the Glam scene. And as such was initially dismissed by a few as a bandwagon-hopping opportunist.*  But let’s be honest, were it not for him and Roxy Music, glam wouldn’t have ultimately amounted to much more than a footnote in the annals of pop music. If it had boiled down to the like of T. Rex, The Sweet, Slade and Gary Glitter, the whole thing would be remembered as little more than some Bubblegum 2.0 fad whose popularity was largely confined to the U.K.. (Next up, kids -- the Bay City Rollers!)

Which of course is the “authenticity” argument, the bulkiest and most unwieldy folder from the “rockism” file. Which I never fully understood, because the Authenticity party line was mostly a product of the late‘50s-early ‘60s folk movement, having only marginally spilled over into the ascendant rock scene in the years that followed.**  Whatever the case, you can deem it as part of the cultural baggage from the 1960s that Bowie, Roxy, and other artists of the period decided could be readily done away with. (Relatedly, I saw this morning that Simon had posted something about the entrance of “meta” into the pop-music spectrum, via a 1980 interview with Brian Eno.)

And I realize that in siding with Bracewell’s argument, I place myself on one side of a dubious polemic adhered to by some people. That being the polemic that roughly goes: Sod all that high-minded, pretentious art-school hijackers’ alt-canon bullocks -- like a tosser who brings a book to a party, coming along and taking all the fun out of everything.

As far as Glam is concerned, I have no idea if either party Bowie or Ferry were privy to Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” essay; which is probably neither nor there because both parties they had something vaguely similar in mind. Ushering in the entrance of postmodern irony into the pop music arena, while showing notion of authenticity the door. Something pop-music artists and listeners have been mindful of ever since. All of which, of course, mostly has to do theater, presentation, image-making, artifice, public spectacle and the like, and -- one could argue -- nothing to do with music, per se. But hey, they don’t call it show biz for nothing.

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* One can imagine the sort of incredulity that broke out in the Leo Castelli stable when the gallerist decided to take Warhol on, with Lichenstein, Rosenquist et al. grumbling, “Who’s this interloping Johnny-come-lately? Oh, he already has a successful career...and a pile of cash to go with it? well, fuck him!”

** Which of course is the “authenticity” argument, the bulkiest and most unwieldy folder from the “rockism” file. Which I never fully understood, because the Authenticity party line was mostly a product of the late‘50s-early ‘60s folk movement, having only marginally spilled over into the ascendant rock scene in the years that followed. Admittedly, this would change in later years, by which point rock-related notions of authenticity were often tangled up with issues about economic class -- was such-and-such an artist from a true working-class background/”the streets”/whatever.



well you probably didn't listen to him for 25 years because during that time he actually - although no one this week will say it - dropped away as a reference point / influence and a public audio-visual presence. after the last bars of Let's Dance fade away (some hard heads would say after last bars of Scary Monsters Super Creeps fade away) it is a long long drought ... two by rote post Let's Dance LPs, The Tin Machine, and then in the 90s the reteam-up with Nile Rodgers for Black Tie, the semirealised Eno reteam-up Outside, the endearing but fumbled drum n bass move of Earthling... the two Visconti re-teamups... true believers will swear by bits of all of those records but nobody with any sense was paying attention at the time... too much else going on... then nothing until The Next Day which has some good bits on.


what does this sentence of MB's even mean - "a kind of neo-Platonic plutonium plush" ?

Greyhoos said...

> what does this sentence of MB's even mean...?

Beyond the fact that Bracewell tends to sometimes get carried away with himself, your guess is as good as mine. But by that point in the block-quoting, I figured I’d used up my quota of abridging ellipsis.

> dropped away as a reference point / influence and a public audio-visual presence

I was avoiding being so blunt, given the circumstances but...yeah, that was it;and I was far from the only one to think so at the time. I remembered buying a copy of “Tonight” from a discount cassette bin shortly after the album’s release. Listened to it once, maybe twice; if I listened to it a third time, it may have been out of some feeling of obligation more than anything else. And in the years that followed, I didn’t hear anything that to contradicted my hunch that there was no need to bother with whatever he was had been doing lately (because, as you said, there was so much else going on). But like I said, I also didn’t feel any need to double back and revisit the early material that had once been a big part of my formative-listening, adolescent years. Until some point in the past decade. At which point I listened with a different, more “seasoned” set of ears, re-evaluating various strengths and weaknesses via distanced hindsight & whatnot. and in terms of his having no longer mattered beyond a point, well...sure, that’s the way it goes in the pop arena. The torch gets passed, changing hands again & again.


I did listen to his old records intermittently in the 25 year gap. (Actually more closer to 30 between tonight and the next day). But the ones that listened to most were the Berlin albums, above all, Low ... Cos they had the resonance with stuff going on in the 90s like post rock and electronic stuff. And it was a tingle if you heard something on the radio, like Fame. In that sense he was like classic rock, up there with the Beatles. But he did seem to disappear from music for a really long time, either as an active musical presence, or something people were influenced by. There was suede. Nirvana covered Man who sold the world and that felt surprising. But who else? Marilyn Manson the dope show.

Greyhoos said...

Like I said -- any sort of direct & overt stylistic musical influence is difficult to gauge. (Myself, I'm taxed to think of a handful of examples.) But it was more the theatrical/stage aspect: the dramatic personae, the gesamtkunstwerk-ish stagecraft & presentaion, the cyclical re-invention & whatnot.

Admittedly, in preceding years there’d been similar things done in rock -- the Beatles making a concept album, Ray Davies's/The Kinks' LPs of song cycles, the Who doing a “rock opera”. But -- by his admission, I gather -- Bowie originally had his eye set on doing musical theater; but in the end just folded that idea into a rock/pop context, complete with all the thematic threading. Inhabiting the role of each character, complete with wardrobing, make-up, stage design, sleeve art, etc.. In terms of later image-creation & projection, one could argue (like I more of less did above) that his greater influence was in the “para-musical” realm. Which might suggest that he was anticipating what a huge cultural rock (and all its spectacular accoutrements) would become in the 1970s. But I doubt that. I imagine that, at first, he was probably a little surprised to see that it went over as successful as it did.

Greyhoos said...

And then there's the science-fiction element, which with Bowie often veered toward the dystopic urban-wasteland stripe. In that respect, I'd say he very much had his finger on the pulse on an underlying sensibility of the time. (Especially for American audiences.) Very "Ballardian", all that.

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