by Evert Cilliers aka Adam Ash
London is in the grip of Bowie fever these days. His first album in 10 years is top of the charts, and a V & A museum exhibition, “David Bowie Is,” devoted to all things Bowie and drawn from his personal archive, is the greatest thing that this august establishment museum has ever put on: double the ticket sales of any previous exhibit in its 160-year-long history.
Selfridges has pop-up stores where you can buy Bowie T-shirts and stuff, and there's a makeup kit for you to Bowie-make-over your quotidian visage. His album is tipped to win the Mercury prize. Not a day goes past that there is not a Bowie pic or article in the popular press. There's even been an April Fool's joke about Bowie opening a pet shop called Spiders from Mars, which would sell some of his favorite spiders as pets.
How has this happened? Well, credit the marketing of no marketing. No publicity buildup. Bowie dropped his album The Next Day out of the blue. After a decade of silence. Surprise, surprise. The subsequent impact may also bespeak the paucity of any great popstar breakout in the last twenty years, since the era of rock titans of the sixties, seventies and eighties. We don't seem to have such titans today. Beyonce, maybe. Social media — so democratic, so pervasive, so accessible — have led to isolated monad pockets of excitement; nothing ranging wide across the entire culture. Frank Ocean is hardly a hugely impactful phenom, even if he's a black guy who admits to being partial to other guys. Lady Gaga is the closest thing we have to a recent high-and-wide-impact popstar, but if she weren't such a good songwriter, her meat dress and other performance-art Haus-of-Gaga stunts would've relegated her to New York's underground scene — just another Klaus Nomi figure, of which Manhattan has had plenty.
Well, what can one say about Bowie Resurgent?
Number one, there hasn't really ever been a popstar worthy of a museum exhibit, except for Bowie. After all these years, the man is eminently intellectually respectable. And why is he so museum-appropriate? Because of his chameleon personas, and the way his personas venture forth from strictly music to engage fashion and other trends. The popstar as persona. The mask as public figure. Before him, public figures worked at creating an enduring single persona. Even actors did it — John Wayne as avuncular cowboy; Clara Bow as vamp; Cary Grant as the ideal gentleman date; Humphrey Bogart's cynical tough guy covering up a morally upright soft heart (when he started off as an upperclass white-tie fop on Broadway). But Bowie said, nope, I'll create a new self every now and then. In his public personas, Bowie exemplifies the psychological theory which says we consist of various self-states, who need to make peace with one another. Except his self-states are so various, there's no way they could be integrated.
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