David Bowie: Zowie Bowie
Simon Frith • Let It Rock • April 1975
Arguing about pop stars is mostly a loony thing to do. So many of the judgements involved are subjective that the inarticulacy of a Juke Box Jury is entirely right — I love the backing and so what? David Bowie is pretty and witty but he'll have to convince you, not me.
The only words worth flinging about have much more general concern — not with Bowie's aesthetic appeal but with his purpose and effect. So, Bowie bashing (roll up! roll up!) isn't much different from Bolan bashing and other past delights. It's the back page of Melody Maker and the selling-out argument, Bowie has sold his talent for fame, fortune and a white fur rug; a once creative artist is now slipping on Woolworths glitter; shameless, Bowie has become a showbiz star.
I know who Bowie's sold out to; I don't understand what he's sold out from. Where is this authentic rock tradition, pose-less and glamour-free? Elvis? The Beatles? No way. Dylan wasn't a bootlace maker, pulling himself up. They're all pop stars, under constant threat of worldly corruption; it operates from the heart of the beast itself and its achievement is the result of it context. Rock is entertainment that suggests—by its energy, self-consciousness, cultural references — something more. The Bowie question is not whether he's sold out, but whether the music he makes from his pop star stance is more than good fun, whether it illuminates its situation.
Bowie constructs his music around an image rather than a sound or a style and it's this that disturbs rock purists. I mean, what a cheek, deciding to be a star before he'd even got a fan. But it isn't a con trick. Ziggy Stardust is the loving creation of a genuine rock addict and the purpose of the Bowie show isn't to give pop a falsely glamorous glow but to point up the reality of the continuing star/audience relationship. Since 1967 and peace and love, rock has been faking a community, as if Jimmy Page, by being scruffy, became a man of the people. But smoking dope together in a field doesn't turn an audience into a society and it's this pretence that Bowie rips apart.
I'd welcome Bowie to rock if only because his live act (down to the flaunted bisexuality) makes explicit aspects of pop usually ignored. But it's equally fascinating to follow his attempts to create a musical style to support the theatrics. His aim is to combine a tone of voice (world-weary narcissistic), an instrumental urgency (Mick Ronson's aggressive and melodic riffs) and a lyrical mythology (science fiction plus New York depravity). It doesn't always work but when it does the result is a gripping rock statement. Cold and calculated, maybe, but a scarily complete vision of life in the rock culture — sensual, selfish, endless. Heartbreak Hotel has become a Drive-in Saturday (Seattle-Phoenix).