Taking the long view on popular music

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David Bowie: The eternal space oddity

Why does Bowie still hold such mythical power?

David Bowie silhouetted as he performs on stage.
David Bowie silhouetted as he performs on stage. Photograph: Getty Images

Apart from a charity gig six years ago, sightings of David Bowie in the past decade have largely been paparazzi shots: a thin, white duke drifting from school gate to home in Manhattan, content with the demands of fatherhood following heart surgery in 2004. Industry friends of mine were asked to write his obituary five years ago. So it was exciting to see the searchlight swing round when, out of nowhere, he announced his first album in ten years and released a single (“Where Are We Now?”), on his 66th birthday, in advance of a huge retrospective opening at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in March.

For a magical moment on the morning of 8 January, the music industry is saved. Charts matter again (emails are pouring in from William Hill); there’s proof that you can keep secrets from the internet; the eternal mysteries of pop are restored as that shaky but unmistakeable voice breaks through YouTube, like Gandalf back from the dead.

Why does Bowie still hold such mythical power? Is it because he retired for a decade, ramping up the expectations? Nothing keeps you safer from criticism in the music industry than hardly releasing any music – Kate Bush will testify to that. Or is it because he’s always been “ahead of the game”? To be fair, he’s not (musically) these days, nor is he pretending to be.

“Where Are We Now?”, produced by Bowie’s long-time wingman Tony Visconti, is a luxuriantly self-reflexive song, reminiscent, with its elegiac chord sequence, of “Thursday’s Child” from the 1999 album Hours . . . (which also saw him boldly alluding to much of his previous work). He’s been chewing over mortality on his past two albums, with songs such as “Afraid” and the ironic “Never Get Old”. It’s obvious why. The new single is a sombre walk around his beloved Berlin, communing with ghosts.

If you want witty, equivocal poetry about middle age, listen to Nick Lowe or Chris Difford. Bowie is getting older reluctantly, fearfully, far away from his audience – and for his audience, this is a very powerful thing. The first line he’s spoken in years, “Had to get the train from Potsdamer Platz . . .” is a call out to the class of ’77, sending them right back to those heady times, alone. Musically unremarkable though it may be, “Where Are We Now?” activates two of the most potent things about popular music: nostalgia and the contemplation of darkness.

A good friend of mine, who gets the whole Bowie thing much better than I will ever do, suggested the other day, “He’s never got over the crushing disappointment of learning the world isn’t as magical as the one he perceived when he was a child.” His playfulness isn’t all gone, though. In the new video, with his face projected on to a puppet made of old socks by the artist Tony Oursler, he looks a bit like Avid Merrion’s “Bear”.