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18 January 2016

David Bowie: the shifting shaman of the modern age

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

By John Gray

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.

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This article appears in the 13 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie