Friday, July 14, 2006

David Bowie and The Key Element of Unpredictability

(In spite of my busy schedule I don't want to give up on this blog yet, so I decided to unearth an old article I wrote for the "Repetition" website. I have only updated one line: the original read "laserdisc" instead of DVD. Oh, and the title, too. This is not a Bowie site, so I thought his name should be mentioned.

I tried to post a picture, but what can I do if Blogger doesn't feel like uploading it? In case you don't know what David Bowie looks like, there are plenty of pictures of him on the Internet!)

David Bowie has earned the nickname "chameleon" for one seemingly obvious reason: his "ch-ch-ch-ch-changes" through the years. As early as 1975, the rock press was writing about his different personas and printing pictures taken at various times in his career. And that was because "Young Americans" had just been released. Those who had thought of him as just a British version of Alice Cooper were suddenly presented with a British, white, blonde Billy Paul. It was only then that both fans and critics were reminded that Bowie had been changing since the very beginning. That is why the expression "chameleon of rock" was coined even before there was the Thin White Duke, "Low," "Let's Dance," or Tin Machine.

However, it wasn't just the changing per se. The Beatles had changed. Elvis had changed. What surprised everyone at first was the radical turn from the hard-rockin' Halloween Jack of "Diamond Dogs" to the blue-eyed soulster in "Young Americans." But what set Bowie apart from the rest in the long run was his unpredictability. It was nearly impossible to anticipate his next move. It still is, in fact. And that is the key ingredient in the Bowie formula. It is the element that makes him unique and keeps him relevant in today's rock music world.

Strangely, not all fans seem to realize this fact. That is the conclusion one reaches after visiting Bowie message boards for a number of months. Most Bowie followers perceive him just as a cool act and an artist who should never mingle with anyone of lesser caliber (whatever that is in their private judgment). The element of unpredictability somehow escapes them. Whenever there are suggestions for possible duets, for instance, they almost always fall within a safe spectrum. Sometimes a fan can be either bold or naive enough to mention Madonna, as it happened once, only to be immediately flamed by fellow Bowie admirers who feel the suggestion is not only unwelcome but totally inappropriate.

Actually, these are the ones who miss the point. Bowie has no musical prejudice. He has tried many different styles, and "Underground" had its arrangement copied on Madonna's "Like a Prayer". So there is no reason why he should not duet with her someday. Whether one likes it or not is a different story, but no one can evaluate the results until it actually happens. Which leads us to another angle. Have you realized the many things Bowie has done in the past that his fans wouldn't have approved of if consulted before hand? Not all of them may have turned out as expected, but most have added enormously to David's legend. To enumerate a few:

1 - The aforementioned "Young Americans." Ziggy fans were taken back by it. The Bowie they knew and loved was gone.

2 - "Wild is The Wind." The song that many now consider to be David's finest rendition ever was originally recorded by Johnny Mathis. That little piece of information alone would be enough to prevent quite a few fans from even giving the track a listen. And although David does not sound like Mathis at all when singing it, he does follow an old-fashioned crooning style reminiscent of Andy Williams.

3 - "Low." RCA executives were appalled when David presented them with this album. They feared it might die a similar death to Lou Reed's "Metal Machine Music." With hindsight, it became a classic, but try to put yourself in the place of the fans in 1976 - the ones who were still pining for Ziggy as well as the new converts from "Young Americans" and"Station to Station."

4 - The Bing Crosby duet. This one speaks for itself.

5 - "Under Pressure." Queen has always been sneered at by the critics, even more so while Freddie Mercury was still alive. Some may argue Bowie risked his reputation by recording a song with them.

In fact, there were only two instances in David's career in which he was predictable. One was when he accepted the role of an alien for his first feature film, with the Ziggy character still in everyone's mind. Luckily for him, it worked. Even if some critics described his acting as "wooden," "The Man Who Fell To Earth" went on to become a cult movie. The Criterion Collection DVD is a must for all Bowie fans, featuring comments by Bowie and director Nicholas Roeg on the analog track.

Then there was "Outside." It wasn't predictable in the strict sense of the word, but it did not comply with the Bowie Book of Rules. In a way, Bowie was surprising once more by breaking his own code. Fans of the so-called "Berlin trilogy" had long been hoping that David would do an album with Eno again. But for those who knew better, that was as unlikely as him regrouping with The Spiders From Mars for the sake of the Ziggy widows. Yet, it happened. However, it would be wise not to hold your breath for the announced sequel, "2. Contamination." The Book of Rules still applies.

Bowie does change, but his secret is moving on while the fans still want more of the same, so his image will never wear out. And this is only one of the lessons fellow artists should learn from him. A few others: never try to guess what the public wants to hear. Do what you feel is right, and if it's good, it will succeed. Even if it doesn't, stand by what you've done and it may be reevaluated some day. Never allow yourself to get stuck with formulas. Avoid the "nostalgia act" syndrome at all costs.

Of course, these tips may not work for everyone. But then, there is only one David Bowie.

1 Comments:

Blogger ¢em@ לאכימ דלא said...

I´d just have been experiencing problems in trying to upload pictures in this BLOGGER thing, too. Oh well

9:16 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home