The death of David Bowie affected me more than I thought it would. But in a different sort of way. I’m normally pretty phlegmatic about celebrity deaths, births and marriages, and I wasn’t even a huge Bowie fan. I mean, I’ve loved the existential sadness of Space Oddity since I was a kid, playing my parents’ vinyl over and over again. I always really enjoyed Labyrinth. Who knew a Goblin King could be so…bulgey! Recently, I had the occasion to appreciate his work even more with the David Bowie Is exhibit ACMI put on last year. But I was never much of a devotee.
Every time a huge 20th century icon dies I get a bit concerned that there aren’t really any icons to replace them. Are there? Who? Gaga? Katy Perry? Think about it: is there really anyone working today with the same sort of iconic status as a Bowie? Or even the potential to be that iconic? I’m not even sure if this is a bad thing. Maybe the whole idea of “icons” is a bit too “great man/woman of history”? Maybe we need to think in terms of culture more collectively? Yet, with each passing of one of the greats, there’s a niggling sense of diminishing cultural returns. There are artistic geniuses out there, I’m sure. But where are the sorts of figures like Bowie, possessed of a unique combination of talent, style, and epoch-defining consciousness?
Maybe they are out there, but maybe the proliferation of new media hides them from view. Maybe there is just too much out there and in this swamp of media, no one person can rise to the top long enough to attain such status. And maybe this is a good thing. Maybe it’s unhealthy to idolise artists. Or maybe the second half of the 20th century was exceptionally good for music, art, culture. I don’t know. I guess these are points to consider.
With each passing of a major 20th century cultural figure like Bowie, an anxiety bubbles up. An anxiety borne of nostalgia, perhaps. An anxiety of the specious present. A fear that the now will never ever be as good as the past. Time needs to pass. Icons have to be built, constructed. But you look back on someone like Bowie, and you can see the inklings of it early on in his career. The fucking with gender, identity, musical genres. People are doing this stuff now, but that’s because this sort of stuff is how you make things now. Probably thanks, in large part, to Bowie himself.
Amongst of all of the affordances of the present, where are the inklings? Where are the Bowies of our age?