Postmodern Conservative

Carl’s Rock Songbook No. 115: David Bowie as Democratic Changeling

Plato's Key to Our Strange Fascination

The essay I’ve reworked for this post was written in 2007, and I’ve tried to limit my editing to keep its original flavor.  Small portions of this material play a part in the chapter of mine in this book on the contemporary philosopher Chantal Delsol.

It seems…that today we are situated at just the right place to best see and judge this great thing.  We are far enough from the Revolution to feel only faintly the passions of those who made it, but we are close enough to understand and empathize with the spirit that led them to make it.

Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and The Revolution

Despite the events of 1989 and 2001, our times remain ones dominated by the Cultural Revolution that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, which we typically refer to in shorthand as “the 60s.”  America’s Culture Wars date from that period, as does the ascendancy in Europe of leftist and/or technocratic elites who prevented such Culture Wars from ever really occurring there.  Many of the changes which we associate with the 60s, of course, had either been set well under way by earlier developments or only became firmly established by later ones, but all the thematic strands of 20th-century cultural development lead either backwards or forwards to that peculiar time, approximately 1962-1976, and climatically considered, 1964-1973, as if purposely gathered-up into one times-are-a-changin’ time after which nothing could be the same again. David Bowie was probably the most symbolic persona of those times; and since ours remain “60s-times,” although admittedly in a rather moderated, regularized, and dispirited manner, he remains an important symbol for understanding ourselves.

I have several reasons for viewing Bowie in this way.  First, he shaped his persona to mirror and magnify what was happening or what he divined soon would be in the new era that had dawned.  Second, this persona particularly magnified its bi-sexuality, undermining and yet deriving transgressive potency from the old taboos, and publicly manifesting the full polymorphic implications of the sexual revolution. Third, he combined an appreciation of the starry-eyed San Francisco Summer of Love aesthetic with an enthusiasm for the cynical New York City Velvet Underground one, and thus served as a key conduit between the two primary stances of the counter-cultural rock scene, the psychedelic hippie and the punk-alternative hipster.  Fourth, Bowie had a love/hate relationship with modernity: in the true spirit of science fiction he simultaneously lamented the techno-rationalization of human life and was exhilarated by new technological possibilities that promised escape from modernity’s wastelands.  Finally, in striking similarity to what Plato once described as the Democratic Soul, the soul which attempts to equally incorporate every way of life into one, David Bowie repeatedly changed his public persona, and penned a song which celebrated this approach to life.

My last two reasons point to what this essay is really after.  We cannot understand our present situation, without grappling with Democracy and Modernity, the two overarching facts of our times.  It is thus not so much Bowie’s artistry which I seek to call our attention to, but how aspects of it line up with certain ideas developed by famous thinkers such as Plato and Tocqueville, and by contemporary ones such as Chantal Delsol, Peter Lawler, and Philippe Bénéton, ideas developed to understand how the social, sexual, aesthetic, psychic, and yes, philosophic sides of life might be understood as one structure.  In fact, although this essay, in future segments of it, will closely analyze two of Bowie’s songs and speak quite highly of his lyrics, I do not fully recommend his artistic output for most listeners, and certainly not for the best listeners, who need no advice from me anyhow.  While the music of his prime stands as some of the most captivating of the 70s popular crop, much of it is laced with that era’s feel of seedy languor and gaudy excess, which he at times pushes to nauseating levels.  Also problematic is his avant-garde penchant for forcing painfully discordant moments into otherwise “merely” beautiful songs, such as occurs with “Heroes” and “Alladin Sane.”  You would probably be happier and healthier for listening to Elton John or Stevie Wonder, and definitely so for listening to Basie or Bach. 

David’s quick-change personas at first just agitated his record company, who,with virtually every recording, had little time to adjust to the different styles thrown at them.  What they didn’t know then, and perhaps David didn’t fully either, was that these changes were an inherent part of his work. Each new look would create a new attitude which in turn would inspire new material. 

Kevin Cann, liner notes to The Best of David Bowie 1969-1974

The career of Bowie’s stardom is often summed up in single word:  changes.  His breakout success in 1972 was due to his invention of a mythic character, the alien rock-star Ziggy Stardust, around whom he constructed an ingenious costume, stage-show, and set of songs.  Prior to this Bowie had already presented himself as a pop-art mod, a trippy folk singer, and a cross dresser who dabbled in hard rock.  If these earlier experiments with sound and image could be seen as attempts by an ambitious young talent to hit upon a popular formula, Bowie’s abandonment of the Ziggy character at the height of his success with it could not.  This renunciation and his subsequent pattern throughout the 70s of reinventing himself suggested something else.  In the Bowie calendar, 1974 was the year of the Diamond Dogs stage show and the “plastic soul” singer, ‘76 that of the Thin White Duke image, and ‘77, the adoption of the “new wave” Berlin image and sound.  These alterations (and there were others) were taken as having a significance beyond show-biz delivery of novelty.  To his more intellectual fans, Bowie seemed to have managed to have both become a pop star, and, to be able to manipulate the shape of his stardom at will, allowing even his promotional hype to be taken as a medium of his artistry, loaded with ironic comment and deeper meanings.

(This should be seen as a piece of the “infinite seriousness” about rock by its more university-level celebrants that rightly astounded Allan Bloom in 1987.  Take Bowie’s praised-to-the-skies stagecraft.  While the film clips of the Ziggy Stardust tour reveal a fair amount of artistic acumen, clips of his later stage-shows are often embarrassing:  they underline the awkward excessiveness of the rock show presented as a Broadway-like combination of music and visual drama.  Perhaps you had to be there.  In any case, the example set by Bowie’s emphasis upon image and stagecraft was unhealthy for popular music as music:  both the bloat of the 70s rock tour, and the froth of the 80s music video can be traced back to his influence.  Whatever the strength of his own music, Bowie’s stardom left the popular music scene less musical than he found it.  Moreover, if rock intellectualizers want to excuse Bowie’s grandiose stagecraft as a kind of ironic commentary, they have to explain why he, and most rock critics, seemed at the time to have really hoped it was breaking fruitful artistic ground.  Moreover, they have to face the fact that even if Bowie was an ironist at heart, the impact of his career would simply demonstrate that the pop-art claim to simultaneously sell and comment upon pop excess becomes unsustainable once the all-too-non-ironic effects of actual popularity upon the performer and his public sink in.)

Considering all of his shifts of image and music, it seems that Bowie was not changing merely for the sake of his popularity or even his pop-art.  He was far too generously giving himself over to the logic of self-reinvention for it not to have reflected some deeper proclivity.  And however personal the roots of that proclivity might have been–Bowie’s biographers show that he at times feared he was doomed to develop schizophrenia, a disorder which had afflicted some of his close relations, and thus it is likely that his role-playing artistry and periods of extreme drug-abuse were partly motivated by a desire to test his own susceptibility to that–, one must recognize the significance of the fact that it was presented to and endorsed by the public.  We desired a star who would embody change, who would display in grossly exaggerated terms what we assumed the passionate life must consist of.  The proclivity was and is ours.

Those who neglect the old books might be inclined to label Bowie’s lifestyle of self-reinvention as Warholian, which is a fruitful connection as far as it goes, but those who have read their Plato can understand it in a far more fundamental manner as democratic. 

[The democratic man]…lives along day by day, gratifying the desire that occurs to him, at one time drinking and listening to the flute, at another downing water and reducing; now practicing gymnastic, and again idling and neglecting everything; and sometimes spending his time as though he were occupied with philosophy.  Often he engages in politics and, jumping up, says and does whatever chances to come to him; and if he ever admires any soldiers, he turns in that direction; and if it’s money-makers, in that one.  And there is neither order nor necessity in his life, but calling this life sweet, free, and blessed, he follows it throughout.

Plato, The Republic, 561d

Book VIII of Plato’s Republic suggests that there are basically five political regimes and five corresponding ways of private life.  Briefly, and in descending order, they are the philosopher, the warrior, the money-maker, the democratic man, and the tyrannical man.  What the passage just quoted shows us, then, is that the democratic man seeks to be each of the other four:  he seeks to pack every sort of life into one, but since he cannot be all things at once, he is necessarily a role-player, a dilettante, and a lover of change. Why should such a person be called democratic?  For one, his inner psychology resembles the pattern of rule in ancient democracy, in which most government offices were distributed by lot.  Plato says he

 …lives…in accord with a certain equality of pleasures he has established.  To whichever one happens along…he hands over the rule within himself until it is satisfied; and then again to another…  And…if someone says that there are some pleasures belonging to fine and good desires and some belonging to bad desires, he shakes his head at all this and says that all are alike and must be honored on an equal basis. (561b-c)

Like other teachers of classical virtue, Plato means for us to notice that by not resisting certain desires we develop this dissolute habituation.  But he also means for us to pay heed to the ideology here, which holds that every sort of pleasure and way of life is equally worthy of pursuit.  To this ideology, the very best way of life would encompass all the others, and would be rightly called democratic, because it would be the life least inclined to aristocratic sentiments.  That is, the man who follows only one way of life must do so because he thinks such a life is better than all the others, and so he is liable to think that the best regime is the one ruled by the aristoi(the “noblest ones”) who best manifest this life.  To affirm that any way of life is better than another, besides the all-encompassing one, undermines the political equality of the citizens.  To truly support democracy, says Plato’s democratic man, one must dogmatically affirm a kind of relativism. 

Granting that the application of an ancient theory to present times requires certain qualifications, this teaching is strikingly relevant.  We all know persons who act, and particularly who talk, in the manner of this democratic man; indeed, his personality type and ideology seem increasingly prevalent.  Moreover, to be “going places,” to be amid the heady beginnings of the affair, to be ever starting something new, to be famous for one thing, and then also for another–the yearnings for these increasingly belong to most of us, even if few of us act upon them so often, due to fear, scruples, or a simple lack of means.  [The last of those obstacles has become especially felt since the recession of 2008.] 

The democratic soul always has been anti-aristocratic in a certain political-ideological sense.  Yes, we could usefully trace certain modern philosophic reinforcements of that creed, and understand it as a philosophic stance simply, say, as “relativism.”  But as humans always have been, the democratic person remains subject to the basic aristocratic/poetic instinct to seek out heroes and exemplars, that is, to insist that some way of life is the grandest and most god-like.  In that sense, a celebrity-star who embodies change becomes the hero of democratic times, an “aristocrat” of the all-colorful democratic style.  That is who the Bowie of 1969-1984 was, himself the “Prettiest Star.”  That is why it would be wrong to understand my application of the term “democratic” to him in the sense of signifying the “common,” “frugal,” and “anonymous.” We need to think of the term in the fuller way that Plato did, in which the freedom-focused aspects of the democratic typically overwhelm the fraternity-focused ones, and in which the people’s passionate and iconoclastic frenzy for equality goes hand in hand with their loving to build-up and emulate diversity-exhibiting democratic gods.

Now obviously, David Bowie did not wake up one day, consider what the most democratic way of living would be, and then proceed to plan out his life.  Nor have I seen any evidence that the younger Bowie knew the relevant passages from Plato.  It is true that near the beginning of his rock career he considered taking the vows of a Buddhist monk, and that at the height of its drug-addled craziness he briefly “jumped into” politics by advocating, of all things, Mussolini-like dictatorship for Britain (a stance he repudiated shortly thereafter).  But however such facts conform to what Plato’s model of the democratic psyche and personality would predict, Bowie almost certainly would not want have wanted to regard himself as explained by that model, even if he had known about it. So if we are to talk about his choices, it is necessary to consider what explanation he did give for them.  That task will take us to consider perhaps his best-known song, “Changes,” which I’ll analyze next time. 

And yes, we’ll eventually learn if he penned any substantial autobiographical reflections in his later years about his changeling ways.  However, since on my terms (and really on his own also) it is more fitting for us to try to understand Bowie the symbolic poet-celebrity than David Robert Jones the man, neither he nor his biographers should necessarily have the last word on the matter.  That is, the archetypal character he found himself drawn by his times to represent—and I mean Bowie, not Ziggy, which was only one facet of the former–might really have been the one Plato glimpsed more than two millennia ago.

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