The death of rock icon David Bowie has provoked an outpouring of grief and emotion across the world. This emotion reflects the loss of a unique artist who has left an indelible mark on global popular music over the last fifty years, but also probably the impression that a “moment” of the Western world’s cultural history may be coming to an end. A moment in which individual freedom made unprecedented advances, which we now realise may be more fragile and precarious than what we had come to think.
Rarely had the passing of a famous artist provoked an emotional shock as widely felt around the world as the death of David Bowie on the 10th of January. The previous deaths of rock and pop superstars like Elvis Presley (1977), John Lennon (1980), Freddie Mercury (1991) and Michael Jackson (2009) had all generated a sense of grief across the world, but none had provoked such outpouring of unanimous tributes and a sense of loss as widely and deeply shared.
This emotional shock reflects the loss of an artist who has marked the history of popular music and culture like few others over the last half century. Initiated in the mid-1960s in the “Swinging London”, David Bowie’s career comes to an end almost fifty years later after 26 studio albums and close to 150 million albums sold worldwide. A longevity that was made possible by an exceptional creativity that allowed him to constantly reinvent his art and explore new ways and forms of musical and artistic expression. Having invented or preceded some of the most significant musical trends of the period, David Bowie influenced several generations of artists of all kinds. From rockers to classical musicians, from pop stars to rappers, from punks up to jazzmen, from funk musicians to techno DJs, all seem to have an almost universal respect for his work, and many acknowledge him as a major influence. An outstanding pioneer and innovator, he certainly influenced more artists and musical genres than any other rock star. He may thus be considered as the most influential artist in the history of pop/rock music, and perhaps even as one of the most influential musicians of the past fifty years.
David Bowie’s influence extends far beyond the boundaries of popular music. Incorporating elements from various art forms and disciplines into his music and his live performances, he brought rock music into a new dimension, far more literary and theatrical than what was prevailing before. He was one of the first rock stars to impersonate characters, born out of his imagination and from a wealth of influences, which profoundly resonated with audiences at the time. He was also one of the first to dress up his characters and design craftily sophisticated stage performances, exerting a significant influence on fashion and visual arts in general. He was also a pioneer of the music video. Rather than as a musician, he perceived himself as an artist using music as his main medium, but he would also make incursions in film, theatre, painting, and finally writing with the play “Lazarus”, whose performances have just ended in New York. Overall, his impact on contemporary culture has been deeper, richer and probably more long lasting than that of any other rock star, as shown by the massive success of the exhibition dedicated to his work by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2013, unprecedented for a pop/rock artist and which is now on tour around the world.
The emotion provoked by David Bowie’s death also certainly reflects the “liberating” or “emancipating” effect that his work had for millions of people worldwide. In the 1970s particularly, due to his artistic and stylistic audacity but also to his uninhibited and ambiguous sexuality, which made him a symbol of sexual liberation and the emancipation of sexual minorities. But also during much of his career, due to his ability to tap into avant-garde or marginal musical and cultural areas and to make their substance available to a wide audience. Never ceasing to explore the most innovative and strangest paths and byways of contemporary art and culture, Bowie was capable of incorporating some of their elements into artistic pieces that could affect and move everyone. By doing so he had managed this most unlikely feat of becoming a profoundly universal artist while being and remaining a resolutely elitist mind. As a result, each and every one of his fans could feel special, apart from the mainstream and almost as a member of an enlightened elite, even though there were millions of them.
The rise of the Self
The emotional shock caused by the passing of David Bowie, however, may also reflect a diffuse but somehow widespread perception that his work, perhaps more than that of any other artist, reflects and symbolises a particular “moment” of the Western world’s cultural history, a moment that we feel is now closed or drawing to a close.
A child of the post–World War II “baby boom”, David Bowie embodied and sometimes triggered the cultural evolutions of his generation, and his work to some extent reflects the impact that this generation has had on contemporary culture. In particular, he played an important symbolic role in the major movements of “liberation” and “decompartmentalisation” that shaped the cultural landscape that is ours today. Not so much by espousing any collective cause – a role he consistently refused to endorse – but rather by becoming the very symbol of personal freedom and of the affirmation of the “Self” – this creature filled with endless potentialities but who somehow has to break free from the constraints and conventions inherited from the ancient world to be able to discover and accomplish them. By taking on multiple incarnations, constantly exploring new horizons and reinventing his art, he firmly asserted his absolute freedom to be and to do whatever he pleased, even and especially if that meant being transgressive and doing what was not expected from him.
Through his work and his example, David Bowie provided inspiration for many individuals, famous or anonymous, to accept and assert themselves, to find their way and develop their talents in one area or other, in other words to assert and appropriate their personal freedom. In doing so, he may also have contributed, probably unintentionally, to the development of the kind of contemporary individualistic hedonism that in recent decades gradually drifted towards superficiality and the search for instant gratification rather than the pursuit of excellence, towards a short-sighted consumerist materialism rather than the search for a form of creative transcendence, and towards the generalisation of self-referential narcissism rather than the quest for true individual fulfilment.
Bowie himself was the antithesis of this drifting. A tiresome worker and a compulsive reader, always on the lookout for new creative paths and curious about everything, he was essentially a human being in search of meaning, continuously questioning the fundamental issues of human existence and their relationship to artistic creation. Having sought to become a star and probably succeeded beyond his wildest expectations, he had in recent years voluntarily withdrawn from the public eye. As if David Bowie himself had actually been a fictional character, born out of the fertile imagination of David Robert Jones, the working class boy from the London suburb, who was leading a quiet and discreet life in New York in his later years.
The David Bowie “creature”, however, probably contributed more than any other artist to propel individual freedom to the firmament of Western cultural values, providing this evolution with some form of artistic impersonation and with a most brilliant soundtrack. So much so that we could even designate as the “Bowie Moment” this time in recent history in which individual freedom made advances in the hierarchy of cultural values as never before. If the emotion was so widely felt and shared when Bowie’s death was announced, it may also be because many felt, probably in a diffuse and unconscious way, that this moment of openness and liberation that the artist had come to symbolise may in fact be coming to an end.
The big disenchantment
Even if they are shaped and triggered by human beings and their creations, cultural evolutions are never totally independent from the historical context in which they develop. David Bowie came of age towards the end of the period called “the golden age of capitalism” in the United States, the period of rapid economic expansion that followed World War II. His psyche and his art were thus formed in an era that was characterised by a widespread belief in the inevitability and irreversibility of “progress”, conceived as the continuous improvement of the living conditions of human beings made possible by scientific and technological advances. For most Westerners, it seemed at the time that the “curse of scarcity” would probably end up being definitely overcome. The economic crisis of the 1970s did not fundamentally dent this belief, which continued to permeate Western societies in the following decades and then spread to other parts of the world with the collapse of the Soviet empire and the globalisation process. To a large extent, it is the power of this belief that made it possible for the boundaries of individual freedom to be continually pushed back. It is the power of this belief that made it materially and psychologically possible for Western societies to start tolerating and then accepting behaviours that for centuries had been considered as socially reprehensible or deviant. To a large extent, increased tolerance and the extension of the realm of individual freedom are by-products of rising prosperity and a widespread faith in a better future.
David Bowie disappears at a time when this faith in a better future seems to be evaporating. Economic growth, which was thought to be a continuous and endless process that would potentially bring abundance and prosperity to every corner of the earth, has gradually dropped to almost zero in most of the Western world. Material wealth creation is hitting the wall of biophysical boundaries in a finite world, and is being hampered by the constantly increasing costs of its side effects, particularly environmental, which put at risk the very conditions of life on Earth. The West has progressively substituted genuine wealth creation by generalised debt accumulation, but this debt-based growth model imploded in 2008-2009 and is since then only being maintained on life support by the ultra accommodative monetary policies conducted by the world’s major central banks – a situation which we know is unlikely to last for long. Meanwhile, wealth has tended to get ever more concentrated among a small number of people, while inequality was widening inexorably. Far from making space exploration the new frontier of the human experience, technological progress has largely gone astray in the pursuit of applications that only generate marginal improvements in real productive capacity, and in ways that tend to exacerbate inequalities of income, wealth and opportunity. Moreover, the globalisation process has failed to sustainably expand peace, prosperity and democracy beyond the edges of the Western world. On the contrary, Western values are increasingly being challenged, while religious obscurantism is spreading and terrorism strikes ever more often, ever harder. The future that Westerners had come to hope and expect has not materialised. Progress has somehow proved to be a disappointment.
As a perspicacious man, David Bowie had felt this great disenchantment coming. “What a disappointing 21st century this is being so far”, he told the BBC in June 2002. “I had personally really quite high expectations about the future. I had no idea it would sort of capitulate into this awful mess, and this dreadful feeling of an involuntary kind of lack of ability to be able to do anything about this impending possible disastrous series of consequences, which, you know, one has so many suspicions about what are the real reasons and the real causes to them. It’s not a pleasant way to live. And I look at my daughter and sometimes… for the first few days after 9/11, I looked at her and couldn’t feel happy, which is a terrible thing to feel. I looked at her and just felt fearful.”
For David Bowie as for many others, the last few years will probably have confirmed this unpleasant feeling. As the economic crisis seems to be dragging on with no end in sight, and as political and social risks seem to be piling up everywhere, the conditions that made possible the continuous extension of the realm of individual freedom, the “Bowie Moment”, are progressively being eroded. Faced with the gradual evaporation of the future they had imagined, all Western societies are being won over by the great disenchantment, which everywhere gives rise to a context that is becoming much less favourable to individual freedom. Some advances are still certainly possible, building on the remaining momentum of emancipation movements that gained steam in recent decades, but the pendulum already seems to be moving in the opposite direction, towards a strengthening of collective structures and disciplines, possibly at the expense of individual freedom. Individuals everywhere are getting subject to insidious but increasingly widespread and systematic surveillance, and behaviours considered as inappropriate or deviant tend to be less and less tolerated, when they are not outrightly criminalised. The essence of most individual and civil liberties seems to be preserved so far in the Western world, but their retreat is accelerating and some form of tipping point may be approaching.
The outpouring of emotion at the news of David Bowie’s death probably also reflect this sensation of seeing a moment of recent history fade away. A moment in which the future was seen with enough confidence, and in which economic, political and social conditions were favourable enough to make it possible to extend the realm of individual freedom and affirmation like never before. This “Bowie Moment”, for all its brilliance, seems to belong to the past, giving way to a different moment that feels much more uncertain and, it seems, less pleasant.