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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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I’ll miss the youthful thrill of Claire’s Accessories – but the tween Mecca refused to grow up

From an adolescent rite of passage to struggling to stay open: how the tackiest shop on the high street lost its shine.

The first day I was allowed to go into “town” (hailing from rural Essex, that’s the local shopping centre, not London) with a friend – unsupervised by a parent – was a real cornerstone of my childhood.

We were 13, and looking back, we had neither mobile phones nor contingency plans, and my mum must have been sat at home for the entire two hours scared shitless, waiting for when she could pick me up again (by the Odeon carpark, 3pm sharp).

Finally free from the constraints of traipsing around department stores bound by the shackles of an adult, my friend and I had the most grown-up afternoon we could imagine; Starbucks Frappuccinos (size: tall – we weren’t made of money), taking pictures on a pink digital camera in the H&M changing rooms, and finally, making a beeline for tween Mecca: Claire’s Accessories.

As a beauty journalist, I’m pretty sure Saturdays spent running amok among the diamante earrings, bow hairbands and fluffy notebooks had an influence on my career path.

I spent hours poring over every rack of clip-on earrings, getting high on the fumes of strawberry lipbalm and the alcohol used to clean freshly pierced toddlers’ ears.

Their slogan, “Where getting ready is half the fun”, still rings true for me ten years on, as I stand on the edge of dancefloors, bored and waiting until my peers are suitably drunk to call it a night, yet revelling in just how great my painstakingly applied false lashes look.

The slogan on a Claire's receipt. Photo: Flickr

On Monday, Claire’s Accessories US filed for bankruptcy, after they were lumbered with insurmountable debts since being taken over by Apollo Global Management in 2007. Many of the US-based stores are closing. While the future of Claire’s in the UK looks uncertain, it may be the next high street retailer – suffering from the surge of online shopping – to follow in Toys R Us’ footsteps.

As much as I hate to say it, this is unsurprising, considering Claire’s commitment to remain the tackiest retailer on the high street.

With the huge rise of interest in beauty from younger age groups – credit where credit’s due, YouTube – Claire’s has remained steadfast in its core belief in taffeta, rhinestone and glitter.

In my local Superdrug (parallel to the Claire’s Accessories, a few doors down from the McDonald’s where we would sit, sans purchase, maxed out after our Lipsmacker and bath bomb-filled jaunt), there are signs plastered all over the new Makeup Revolution concealer stand: “ENQUIRE WITH STAFF FOR STOCK”. A group of young girls nervously designate one among them to do the enquiring.

Such is the popularity of the three-week-old concealer, made infamous by YouTube videos entitled things like “I CANNOT BELIEVE THIS CONCEALER!” and “FULL COVERAGE AND £4!!!”, no stock is on display for fear of shoplifters.

The concealer is cheap, available on the high street, comparable to high-end brands and favoured by popular YouTube “beauty gurus”, giving young girls a portal into “adult life”, with Happy Meal money.

It’s unlikely 13-year-olds even own eye bags large enough to warrant a full coverage concealer, but they’re savvy enough to know that they can now get good quality makeup and accessories, without going any higher than Claire’s price points.

They have naturally outgrown a retailer that refuses to grow with them; it’s simply not sustainable on Claire’s part to sell babyish items to a market who no longer want babyish things.

Adulthood is catching up with this new breed of teenagers faster than ever, and they’ve decided it’s time to put away childish things.

Tweenagers of 2018 won’t miss Claire’s Accessories if it goes. The boarded-up purple signage would leave craters in shopping centre walls soon to be filled with the burgundy sheen of a new Pret.

But I will. Maybe not constantly – it’s not as if Primark has stopped selling jersey dresses, or Topshop their Joni jeans – it’ll be more of a slow burn. I’ll mourn the loss of Claire’s the next time a pang of nostalgia for blue-frosted shadow hits me, or when it’s Halloween eve and I realise I’m bereft of a pair of cat ears. But when the time comes, there’s always Amazon Prime.

Amelia Perrin is a freelance beauty and lifestyle journalist.