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William C. Altreuter
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Monday, January 11, 2016

Something I lose track of when I'm thinking about popular music is that it is supposed to be popular. I'm not alone in this-- probably most music critics fall into the trap of disdaining mere Pop for something that seems more ambitious. As I sit here writing and listening to Tin Machine I'm thinking that David Bowie had something more ambitious in mind for his work, and although I didn't always -- or even usually-- connect with it, now, at the end, I think we have to concede that anyone interested in late 20th Century culture would have to stipulate that Bowie was a important contributor. If you love rock and roll you probably have to have more than one Bowie record on your shelves. For me the essential Bowie sides are Hunky Dory-- in which he staked out his position on the outside; Station to Station-- maybe his best guitar album; and Low. which is simply fantastic Euro-noir. Here's the thing though-- my taste in David Bowie records and your taste in same are largely irrelevant because in his uniquely weird way he made music that managed to as nearly universally popular as it may have been possible to have made in his time. He was undeniable. Singing "Drummer Boy" with Bing Crosby, the whole Ziggy Stardust thing, all of it.

In the Buffalo News Jeff Miers wrote that the nearest cultural figure to Bowie was Miles Davis, which is, unfortunately, the sort of hyperbole that actually diminishes the artist being praised. Davis was always ahead of the pack, an innovator. One of the reasons that I was never a devoted David Bowie fan is that at any given moment, at any particular phase of his artistic career, it always seemed to me that there were other artists that had arrived where Bowie was just a little bit ahead of him, so that he tended to appear to me as more of a reflection of what was happening in popular music than an actual inventor. The expression "chameleon-like" has always seemed to me more apt-- like the changeable lizard Bowie became the color of his background. If Marc Bolin was outrageous and glittery, Bowie was moreso; if funk was what was called for David would funk it up.  Low is as good an Eno album as Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), and so on. There is nothing wrong with that-- the argument can be made that this is exactly what great artists do-- they embody the zeitgeist. Bowie's greatness was not that he was an innovator-- although he was certainly an original character himself. I would say that what made him important was that he allowed so many people to be themselves. It always struck me as strange that a rock star whose most memorable personae was that of a homosexual outer space alien could be so very nearly universally popular, not just with the oddballs and the alienated, the kids who were gay and terrified, but with the lunkheads as well. I'd be willing to bet that there wasn't a frat house in the United States that didn't have a copy of Ziggy Stardust in it, and that's a great thing. In a real sense we live in a world that is more accepting today because the lunkheads in the DKE House partied down to "Suffragette City", right along with the kids who were in the school play. That's pretty great-- David Bowie let a lot of people who felt like outsiders feel like being different was cool, and he bought some respect for those people because David Bowie was cool.

A final observation: driving into work today I thought I'd like to hear a little more Bowie. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act apparently means that satellite radio couldn't just play a ton of it, so I jacked my phone in and told Siri, "Play David Bowie songs." What I got was Blackstar, his final album, in its entirety. Pretty good record, but that's not my point. My point is that the decision to make David Bowie's valedictory the music that Apple will play if you make that request was not a decision made by an artificial intelligence. Good for whoever it was at Apple who made that call.


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