In ten years time, if we should happen to look over the Brits winners of 2014, among the list of forgotten flash in the pans and now-stadium-dependables David Bowie’s award for Best Male Artist will be the Proust’s madeleine or forgotten TV theme that sends us hurtling back to 2014. And, with a lurch of embarrassment for the time and all of us here, the question will form on our lips: “What were we thinking?”
Let’s not pretend: Bowie’s award was for being alive, as was the acclaim that greeted his single, “Where Are We Now”. We thought he was dead/in a coma/suffering from dementia/Parkinson’s Disease and he wasn’t. If that didn’t do it, the song (calculatedly or not, who knows?) was even about nostalgia – walking through Berlin, looking back – and came with a wistful chorus guaranteed to send Pavlovian shivers down the spine of anyone who’d seen him perform “Starman” on Top Of The Pops, or listened to “Station to Station” in a dark bedroom, or remembered him leaning against a wall in the video for “Let’s Dance”. Solo acts can’t break up and reform; Bowie had (calculatedly or not) figured out his own way to rekindle that love.
I’m as happy as anyone that he’s alive and well enough to make a record and disappoint me by appearing in an advert for Louis Vuitton. But let’s not get this out of proportion. Let’s not pretend he’s made a great album: I don’t even want to listen to the whole of that song again, let alone the album it comes from. It was the same when Bob Dylan released his Tempest in 2012. Asked what the best albums of the year were, I put that in. How could I not? It was Bob Dylan, the man who changed rock music and, more importantly, nursed me through my student days and three separate heartbreaks, played the best gig I’ve ever seen, whose greatest moments still work their magic for me. And I haven’t listened to Tempest since.
Bowie, like Dylan, is irrelevant. Any of the other nominees for Best Male Artist – folk throwback Jake Bugg, angsty electronicist James Blake, retro-soulboy John Newman or plangent piano manchild Tom Odell – represent a strand of popular music in the UK now, for good or ill. Marvellously, none of them were born when Bowie last won the same award, in 1984 – for Let’s Dance, the album where he was last relevant, though first stopped dictating what relevance was. Another twinkle in his father’s eye was Harry Styles of One Direction, whose reaction to Bowie’s win, for Radio 4’s Today programme, was, “He’s a legend.” The boy put his finger on it – a legend is exactly what Bowie is, and his award came from the ancestor-worship pop music has been indulging in for some time as it tries to come to terms with its own old age.
Radio 6, a station created in order to connect pop past and present, has been one of the most committed participants in the past year’s Bowie worship. Perhaps they can draw a line under it now. Moving on doesn’t have to take away from what he did before – we can still love that. We can enjoy his new stuff, too, but let’s not get them confused. It’s a shame Bowie’s comeback didn’t take the form of dense art music like Scott Walker’s, or painting. Instead, it seems he still wants to be in the game. But to humour him, for the sake of our various pasts, is ludicrous.