It has been a year since David Bowie’s death. And what a year it has been…
David Bowie died a year ago today. And of course it’s a good time to remember the man and the artist, and to consider once more his cultural significance. I tried to lay down a few words about all this last year, in two posts published shortly after Bowie’s passing:
#DavidBowie, the universal elitist – January 14, 2016
The #BowieMoment – A historico-cultural perspective – January 22, 2016
In the latter post, I argued that the worldwide outpouring of grief and emotion at the announcement of Bowie’s death, without precedent for a pop/rock star, reflected “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.” David Bowie, I wrote, “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” and might be “giving way to a different moment that feels much more uncertain and, it seems, less pleasant.“
The closing of the “Bowie Moment”, of course, has little to do with the artist’s death as such. Rather, it probably results from the progressive erosion of the economic, social and political foundations that made possible the continuous extension of the realm of individual freedom over the last decades. “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.“
One year on, it feels like we have made big, bold steps towards this tipping point. In fact, we are witnessing across the West a progressive dereliction of democratic political institutions, which maintain a semblance of functionality but are getting increasingly incapable of solving the major issues facing complex societies and seem to be at the mercy of evolutions and forces that are largely beyond their control. This phenomenon of ‘sophisticated state failure’ is increasingly undermining the liberal world order that has prevailed in recent decades, and even in some countries the foundations of liberal democracy itself.
One year on, Western culture’s “Bowie Moment” increasingly feels like a fading memory. Almost everywhere, tolerance and individual freedoms seem to be under threat and even sometimes on the retreat. To a large extent, increased tolerance and the extension of the realm of individual freedom in recent decades were indeed by-products of a rising prosperity, which now seems to have hit a wall, and of a widespread faith in a better future, which now seems to be evaporating.
One year on, a lot of certainties are being challenged or even destroyed by a populist wave that shows no sign of abating. Against all odds, David Bowie’s countrymen voted to leave the European Union, a decision that seems to be so complex to implement that only God or some form of artificial intelligence will be able to crack it – clearly, Theresa May and her government have little clue… Against all odds, American citizens voted to put in the White House a man whose only predictability is his unpredictability and who seems willing to govern by tweet… Everywhere societies seem to be creaking under the strain of ever-growing complexity and the diminishing returns it now generates. Everywhere a sort of collective “suspension of disbelief” seems to be occurring, some say because of the spreading of fake and faker news. “God Only Knows” what the next few years will bring, and which new certainties and seemingly solidly grounded beliefs will be swept away.
One year on, we all seem to be wandering around in a world with no plan. David Bowie, maybe, felt it coming…
David Bowie’s new song, “No Plan”. The song was recorded before he died and released on January 8th 2017, the day he would have turned 70. It’s part of a four-track EP, also called No Plan, which was released the same day and features music from Bowie’s musical Lazarus, including the eponymous track Lazarus, No Plan, Killing a Little Time and When I Met You.