September 05, 2007

I watch the ripples change their size, but never leave the stream

David Bowie in particular had associations with almost all of these people at various points, through either producing their records or otherwise collaborating. He was the connector, rock's greatest dilettante, forever chasing the next edge, always moving on. More than anyone else, it was Bowie who was the touchstone inspiration for postpunk's ethos of perpetual change.

—Simon Reynolds,
Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984

Until I read that, I had never thought of Bowie as a sort of pop/rock Erik Satie, but it's not a bad comparison. Bowie/Satie was the inspiration for a generation of younger musicians looking to move past what they saw as the dead end of Romanticism/Wagnerianism/punk nihilism/American rockism. A nice historical analogy to fill out your collection.

Except for that word dilettante, that is. I've heard Satie called both an opportunist and a purposefully willful eccentric, but never a dilettante—to use the conventional terminology, Satie found his voice and stuck to it, no matter what musical or literary movement he was associating with. He avoided the D-word on account of his stylistic consistency.

Bowie, on the other hand—I don't think Reynolds is using the term in a perjorative way here, but it certainly was a criticism against Bowie throughout his career. When I first became a fan (the early 80s, around the time of Let's Dance), it was the fourth or fifth new Bowie of the past ten years, a tally that would easily double if you went all the way back to "Space Oddity." For me, his ability to sense each shift in the pop-culture wind—stadium rock, blue-eyed soul, electronica, pop nostalgia—and come up with a record that both encapsulated and commented on it was uncanny, intriguing, and not a little bit witty. For a lot of people, though, it felt like a con, that if you stripped away all the adopted stylistic layers, there was nothing at the core.

Etymology-as-argument has its pitfalls, but in the case of dilettante, it makes an interesting point. The word entered the language from Italian ("delighting in") in the early 18th century, largely as a compliment (much like the original use of the word amateur). The negative use doesn't come about until the 19th century—in other words, on the heels of Romanticism. The Romantic idea that artistic expression that broke with established traditions or models was still valid if it was an honest reflection of the creator's soul was, perhaps inevitably, flipped around—art that played around with traditions or imitative models was perceived as somehow less honest and valid.

I studied composition with possibly the most Bowie-esque of modern composers, Lukas Foss (who just turned 85, by the way—happy birthday!). Foss could also adopt each new vocabulary—open-prairie Americana, serialism, aleatoricism, minimalism—with deceptive ease, but I always felt that the bandwagoneer potshots rather missed the point. Each new style was, for Foss, an opportunity to demonstrate that the novelty was only on the surface, to show how each innovation fit into the great tradition of Western music, the universal artistic goals shared over the centuries. It's something that reaches back to his heroes, Bach and Mozart, the paragons of pre-Romantic composition, both of whom saw part of their job as being attuned to every next big thing.

We like to think that the era of stylistic battles is over, but the idea of different styles as a compositional resource in and of itself, rather than the end result of an artistic concept, still strikes a lot of people as too shallow, too meta-whatever, too clever by half. (Not just in music, either—take, for example, James Wood, the New Yorker's new book reviewer, whose career has been in large part marked by the conviction that stylistic promiscuity almost inevitably interferes with artistic expression.) Even I have my limits on post-modern hijinks, but the Bernstein Mass or the funhouse of Sondheim's Assassins or, more recently, Steven Mackey's Dreamhouse, to name but three examples, are all works whose power and depth are because of their stylistic variety, not in spite of it. Part of it is the paradoxical nature of the mask, how wearing one can free you up to display more of yourself. But I think part of it is also the implicit recognition of the audience, that adopting a stylistic pose carries with it the expectation of a listener who will recognize it, making the energy flow outward rather than inward. Bowie himself put it this way in "Who Can I Be Now?", a 1974 rarity:
If it's all a vast creation
Putting on a face that's new
Someone has to see, a role for him and me
Someone might as well be you.


Richard Edward Horner said...


The Omniscient Mussel said...

A very well thought out argument and one with which Miss Mussel wholeheartedly agrees. The mask paradox in particular has the old noggin on overdrive.

Elaine Fine said...

You haven't experienced the David Bowie of today until you see this.

Civic Center said...

I'm not even a fan, particularly, but it's long been obvious that Bowie is one of the many faces of God.

Matthew said...

sfmike: And more than a few of the 99 names, as well.