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David Bowie: the shifting shaman of the modern age

How the musician came to be a digital presence in the lives of millions.

If your aim is to be original, you will most likely end up looking and sounding highly derivative. Striving for self-expression, you turn yourself into a mouthpiece for the ruling clichés. David Bowie did the opposite. Knowing himself to be – as a matter of fact or fate – utterly singular, he chose to become a clairvoyant who served as a channel for the shifting spirit of the age. Along the way a succession of selves emerged, each of them novel and original. A commonplace view has it that Bowie was a chameleon who kept reinventing himself in order to exploit the turns of fashion. But his changes served a deeper end. By becoming Nobody, he became many people and at the same time himself.

The circumstances of Bowie’s life predestined him to the role of a medium. His early years exposed him to splintered minds. His brother’s mental illness taught him the fragility of sanity, and at some points – when inflamed by too much cocaine – Bowie does seem to have come to the edge of madness. Yet the experience did not leave him less experimental in his art or his life. He used his time on the edge to take more risks and become more fearlessly creative.

He grew up and thrived at a time of upheaval. The Seventies and Eighties were decades when class, sex and gender roles were dissolving and mutating, and for many of us who lived through them these were years that Bowie not only embodied, but also anticipated and enacted. Some may have been seized by panic as social conventions melted down, but not Bowie. He revelled in the metamorphoses that were under way. Many have noted the eclectic craftsmanship with which he mixed art forms from different sources – kabuki and music hall, for example. These transformations did not come quickly; there surely must have been a lot of labour in them. But his changes were not mere exercises in pastiche, however brilliantly executed. Using a method of cross-matching, he created a space in which new forms could appear. When they did, it was as if they came from nowhere. Talk of Bowie being a magician is not all hyperbole.

That there was a streak of streetwise shrewdness in the man cannot be denied. In 1997, foreseeing the financialised economy that was coming into being, he sold $55m worth of “Bowie Bonds” – securities that were backed by current and future revenues from the albums he had produced before 1990. The deal was possible because, unlike many musicians, he owned the rights to his songs. New technologies eroded this copyright and the value of the bonds, which were wound up in 2007. By then Bowie had been active in new media for almost a decade. In 1998, years before YouTube and Twitter were founded, he launched BowieNet, creating what he described as “the first community-driven internet site that focuses on music, film, literature, painting and more”. But here as elsewhere there was more going on than meets the eye.

In the course of his career – if that dated concept can be used in connection with him – Bowie became a digital presence in the lives of many millions. From very early on in its development, he seems to have understood how the new virtual world would become a vehicle for ancient dreams. So he turned the cultural mediumship he practised during much of his life into an internet-
enabled practice of channelling images and stories that linked him with his fans.

Whether he was always fully aware of what he was doing cannot be known. From one point of view, the album released just before his death was artfully scripted by him as a cryptic valediction. Yet the premonitory lyrics of Blackstar have a trance-like rhythm, suggesting they came from somewhere beyond his conscious personality. Finally eluding our and possibly his own understanding, Bowie died as he lived, a modern shaman.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie

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How did Don’t Tell the Bride lose its spark?

Falling out of the love with reality TV’s wedding planning hit.

Steph, 23, from Nottinghamshire, is standing in a drizzly field wearing a wedding dress. Her betrothed, Billy, is running around in a tweed flat cap trying to make some pigs walk in “a continuous parade”. A man from Guinness World Records is watching with a clipboard, shaking his head. Bridesmaids gaze sorrowfully into the middle distance, each in a damp pig onesie.

Thus ends the second wedding in E4’s new series of Don’t Tell the Bride – and the programme’s integrity with it.

When the classic programme, which follows grooms attempting to plan their wedding (punchline: human males doing some organising), began a decade ago on BBC Three, it had the raw spark of unpredictability. For eight years, the show did nothing fancy with the format, and stuck with pretty ordinary couples who had few eccentric aspirations for their wedding day.

This usually resulted in run-of-the-mill, mildly disappointing weddings where the worst thing that happened would be a reception at the nearest motorway pub, or an ill-fitting New Look low heel.

It sounds dull, but anyone who has religiously watched it knows that the more low-key weddings expose what is truly intriguing about this programme: the unconditional commitment – or doomed nature – of a relationship. As one of the show’s superfans told the Radio Times a couple of years ago:

“It’s perfect, and not in an ironic or post-ironic or snarky way. The format has the solemn weight of a ceremony . . . Don’t Tell the Bride is not about ruined weddings, it’s about hope. Every wedding is a demonstration of how our ambitions curve away from our abilities. It’s a show about striving to deserve love and how that’s rarely enough.”

It also meant that when there were bombshells, they were stand-out episodes. High drama like Series 4’s notorious Las Vegas wedding almost resulting in a no-show bride. Or heart-warming surprises like the geezer Luke in Series 3 playing Fifa and guzzling a tinny on his wedding morning, who incongruously pulls off a stonking wedding day (complete with special permission from the Catholic Church).

For its eight years on BBC Three, a few wildcard weddings were thrown into the mix of each series. Then the show had a brief affair with BBC One, a flirt with Sky, and is now on its tenth year, 13th series and in a brand new relationship – with the more outrageous E4.

During its journey from BBC Three, the show has been losing its way. Tedious relationship preamble has been used to beef up each episode. Some of the grooms are cruel rather than clueless, or seem more pathetic and vulnerable than naïve. And wackier weddings have become the norm.

The programme has now fully split from its understated roots. Since it kicked off at the end of July, every wedding has been a publicity stunt. The pig farm nuptials are sandwiched between a Costa del Sol-based parasail monstrosity and an Eighties Neighbours-themed ceremony, for example. All facilitated by producers clearly handing the groom and best men karaoke booth-style props (sombreros! Inflatable guitars! Wigs!) to soup up the living room planning process.

Such hamminess doesn’t give us the same fly-on-the-wall flavour of a relationship as the older episodes. But maybe this level of artifice is appropriate. As one groom revealed to enraged fans in The Sun this week, the ceremonies filmed are not actually legally binding. “It makes a bit of a mockery of the process that the bride and groom go through this huge ordeal for a ceremony which isn’t even legal,” he said. Perhaps we should’ve predicted it would all eventually end in divorce – from reality.

Don’t Tell the Bride is on E4 at 9pm

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.