Thursday, January 14, 2016

Posing on the Precipice

At age 69, when you put on a bodystocking for a music video, you may be trying to communicate all sorts of things.

You may be saying, “I’m in really good shape for my age”.

You may be taking a political position: “Every age is as valid and important as every other, and therefore the fact that I look ridiculous in this thing should not be noted. I am making a social comment about ageism”.

Or you may be plain delusional, imagining somebody wants a peek at your failing physique.

David Bowie did it while dying of cancer, all in the interests of making a final artistic statement.

That’s some declaration. I think we can do better than that.

Pop Culture Chameleon

For those completely disconnected from pop culture, Bowie was an immensely imaginative, financially savvy, chameleon-like British musician-cum-performance artist known for creating memorable characters onstage, working with brilliant instrumentalists and changing musical styles more often than his hair color. In over forty years of performing he released 27 albums of original material and sold in excess of 135 million albums worldwide.

Probably his cleverest move of all came in 1997 when, correctly anticipating how Napster and other internet file sharing services would eventually gut the music industry, he became the first musician to market the royalties from his back catalogue on a stock exchange. The bonds ultimately tanked and the rights to the songs reverted to Bowie, but not before he pocketed $55 million for renting them to investors for a decade.

That was typical Bowie. The children of this age, Jesus once said, are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the children of light. But when cancer ended his life on January 10, it left little hope that he might have been as forward-thinking about spiritual things as he was about the music industry.

The Musical Legacy

Back in 1975, I was riding a city bus home from the mall with a newly-purchased copy of Bowie’s Young Americans record in my lap when an older teen from my church sat down beside me and made a snarky comment about Bowie being the “devil’s own”. It was, I thought at the time, a typical Christian overreaction. Bowie was just another smart, secular young man making money in a grubby industry for doing something that at its core is essentially trivial.

For most people, Bowie’s songs, while musically intriguing and frequently hummable, will not be listed among the classics. On the whole, his lyrics appealed to the head rather than the heart. Most were enigmatic rather than straightforward: full of memorable individual lines that added up to not very much in the end, possibly because for much of his career he employed the William S. Burroughs technique of cutting his lyrics into four or five-word sections and rearranging them to add the element of chance. It made his writing distinctive but not particularly approachable. And as to his favourite subject matter, there was little in his work to connect with emotionally: the songs I remember are about fame, dissolution or alienation, rarely about anything of lasting significance.

Dissecting Lazarus

But back to the bodystocking.

The illusion that we matter at all outside of a relationship with Jesus Christ is easily sustained when we are young, healthy and busy enough to avoid reflecting on the bigger questions. I much prefer the image of David Bowie onstage during his Let’s Dance tour in the eighties — uncharacteristically smiling and joking with his audience, the mask off for once, or so it appeared at the time — to Lazarus, his carefully constructed video farewell to his fans, in which the aging performance artist thrashes about in frustration as he attempts to scratch a few final, futile thoughts on crumpled paper.

My fellow blogger Immanuel Can calls it “disturbing” and “necrotic”, but watching Lazarus on YouTube, I am struck above all by the appalling bleakness of ending life without Christ.

The four minute dirge is unexpectedly straightforward. That Bowie performs much of the song blindfolded in a hospital bed, hair perfectly coiffed as always, doesn’t lighten the mood one bit. The skull on the desk is a bit more literal than may have been required under the circumstances, and the inexplicable figure hiding under the bed feels like typical Bowie misdirection: it may represent some feeling deeply significant to the artist, or it may mean nothing at all. But by the time the singer backs his way into a wooden box to close the video, shuddering all the while, it hardly matters that he leaves the screen for the final time in a wardrobe rather than a coffin. We get the message.

Posing and Acting Artsy

In the end, it is the triviality of his final act that sticks with me. IC writes:
“How sad. How bitterly ironic. How absurd of the man to have spent his final days posing and acting artsy instead of doing something for his soul.”
Indeed. If calling the man trivial seems harsh, it’s nothing personal. Record sales and millions of fans carry no weight at all where Bowie is now. When he sings, “Look up here, I’m in heaven”, it seems sadly implausible. When he raises his arms and cries out, “I’ll be free,” he is even less convincing.

For Christians, the least-regarded among us who genuinely believes in Jesus Christ walks into eternity with more currency than the greatest and most significant public figures of our age.

And he or she does it in hope of an inheritance that is “imperishable, undefiled and unfading”.

1 comment :

  1. When I was young, I enjoyed some of David Bowie's music. I was entertained by his wild, theatrical gestures and his seemingly limitless power to adapt and reinvent himself. Then he was young; and the young never think their options will run out.

    But I think of how, in Exodus, Pharaoh first hardened his heart against God's voice (Ex. 8:15, 9:34), over and over, until eventually God said, essentially, "Okay, this is what you have decided; from now on, you lose your option to repent and escape judgment." After that, it says, *God* hardened Pharaoh's heart (Ex. 10:1).

    David Bowie, talented, creative and clever as he was, had no place for God -- at least, none we know of. And at the end of his life, it seems he was unable to be anything but David Bowie doing David Bowie things. Hardness of heart, you will find, is most pronounced in nursing homes and palliative care wards. There you will meet any number of deluded souls desperately playing out the hand the chose to deal themselves to the last sorry card.

    Blaise Pascal reminds us that eternity is coming. How sad that David Bowie was never willing to make that calculation.

    Let's not be that.