The other day I stopped into my library, not to get books (I only read self-published indie books; also, I rack up the library fines) but to check out any new CDs. There it was: the most recent David Bowie album, “The Next Day.” This was a surprise rollout in 2013, Bowie’s first album in ten years. It went through the five stages of hype: Surprise, Disappointment, Bargaining, Acceptance, Library Bin. The other day seemed to be the right time (and the right price) to finally listen to it, and it made me think about the nature of art. Not liking something can open your mind.
Why didn’t I like this album? The musical production is impeccable, and I don’t even mean that in a backhanded way. Bowie’s done slick well before: The plastic soul of Young Americans, the coked-up majesty of Station to Station, the of-its-moment pop of Let’s Dance, which if you listen to it again is a crazy batch of songs to have been so popular. Even when he was rocking out with Mick Ronson or weirding out with Brian Eno, Bowie’s always had tight control on the music, the consummate pop-craftsman. So the problem isn’t that every corner is smoothed to a nub, that dense layers of saxophones, guitars and synths are tucked in just so.
I could continue in rock-critique vein (the slick music floats without direction, but at least it’s mostly rockers), but the issue isn’t why the album doesn’t work, the issue is why the art doesn’t work, and it comes down to the lyrics breaking the spell that is Bowie. Which is what brings me to the nature of art, how exploring artistic failure* can teach us about artistic success. Because for Bowie to break the spell, we must understand the spell.
Harold Bloom has talked about how great art needs to contain great strangeness “that we either never altogether assimilate, or that becomes such a given that we are blinded to its idiosyncrasies.” Bowie is so weird it’s weird. The Kabuki alien thing he pulled off, mullet and all, is still so weird to this day that his imitators get to be called weird for aping it. His oft-cited theatricality lets him get away with other choices we’ve now come to accept, which frees him to be strange, but which can also be a trap.
The singing? Who said he could sing like that? It started out a bitchy Dylan sneer coupled with some Buddy Holly hiccupping, the yawp that begat ten thousand yelps. Then he dropped down to a baritone, suggesting Bing Crosby by way of Scott Walker, croaking out lugubrious melodies over chilly electronics. Never natural, always pretentious. One can imagine people hating this music because of the voice, and loving the voice for that very reason.
To sing like that, you’ve got to sing about aliens or paranoid visions of dystopia. It helps to be trapped in your mansion consuming nothing but peppers, milk, and cocaine while burning black candles in “psychic terror” that Jimmy Page is coming to get you. I’m not saying you need drugs to rock, but you’ve got to find your strange.
Bowie’s lyrics have never made sense. Even when you could follow that they were about some alien rock star, they veered from the banal (“Let all the children boogie”) to the overwrought (“we bitched about his fans, and should we crush his sweet hands”—I could write an entire essay about this line. I’ve fronted a lot of bands, and they always fall apart, but as big a tyrant I can be, I’d like to think that no one has ever contemplated crushing my sweet hands) to the sublime (If all Bowie ever wrote was “Wham Bam Thank you ma’am!” he’d still be a rock god). Soon enough he was jabbering fragmented poetry based on some personal mythology. “The shrieking of nothing is killing just pictures of Jap girls in synthesis.” ** Indeed. That’s the kind of glorious nonsense you can croon over a Krautrock beat. Lines like “Who’d have ever dreamed that a small-town girl like you would be the boss of me?” aren’t just mediocre. They’re spell breaking. When an artist spends a career baffling you with his strangeness, happy common themes won’t cut it. McCartney can get away with (a little) of that happy nonsense, because he’s a Beatle, not an alien. There are a number of lines like this, but I want to get past this particular album.
Prose writers rarely get to use their personas as the springboard for strange. Maybe Capote, but he stopped writing. Hemingway, Casanova, J. D. Salinger, Hunter S. Thompson. Even then the medium demands the strangeness in the words. Writing, like all art, needs to confuse us. If we understand it, we don’t get it. Sometimes a character’s motivation isn’t readily discernable, sometimes the author’s isn’t. We’ve got to wrestle with what it means, or it becomes meaningless.
Perhaps that’s why fantasy is often the least respected genre. It’s so out and obvious with what’s not normal, it spends the rest of the writing adhering to the rules of its universe. Also, George R.R. Martin (the R.R. stands for Rune Reader) needs to stop listing the types of eel pie all the secondary characters eat and get those dragons to the battlefield.
Looking at the independent novel bestsellers list, I’m struck by the amount of what looks to be erotica. Even erotica needs to find its kinks. You can’t just put “Well, we jumped into bed and started doing it. In and out. In and out. In and out. In and out.”
I stand corrected. That was actually quite hot. I’ve got to go to the bathroom now.
Okay I’m back. My point is that there are myriad routes to the dislocating pleasures of strangeness, but that this is what we want. We want some kind of misunderstanding, something to jar us awake so we’re more alive. When an artist fails to do this, especially one we normally love, it can give us a better appreciation for the moments that do work. When the art is too transparent, we long for the opacity that can frustrate us sometimes, with better appreciation for the struggle to see.
*If you are actually David Bowie and for some god-awful reason are reading this article, please do not be sad. It’s not that bad a record! I like the title track and maybe a couple others, and you’re still in good voice! It IS good to have you back!
**Funk to funky aside, HOW did Major Tom become a junkie? He’s in a space capsule. How do you score smack in a space capsule? I suppose he could have smuggled a lifetime supply on board, but the guy from the first song was so straitlaced, and this addiction seems to have crept up somewhere while he was out there. It’s odd.