Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Miscellaneous Comments: CSW Grad Student reviews new David Bowie Single, obliquely

A few years ago yesterday, I watched the singer from the classic 90's band Bongwater, Ann Magnuson (she also plays the bit part of 'young disco woman' alongside the vampires Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie in the 1983 film The Hunger, much recommended), sing a bunch of Bowie songs with a cover band at the Steve Allen Theater. I believe that was in celebration of his 63rd birthday.

His 66th was yesterday and he released a new single to accompany an album due later this year called The Next Day. The album cover is both lazy and brilliant, the classic Heroes cover with an oversize post-it across its face reading the album's title. Anyways, this release, for what it's worth, gives me (and by extension the CSW blog) the timely occasion to write about David Bowie, which these days is a rare occasion indeed. Bowie, after all, has an interesting relation to gender in American pop culture - a relation summarized rather well in the late Mike Kelley's concept of the "CrossGender/CrossGenre" phenomenon of 60s radical youth culture, which he explains as culminating in the mid-70s with the person of Bowie (the ultimate iguana of rock, both in style and 'gender').

Though perhaps only half-willing to supply much of a counter-argument on this, I would suggest, as I'm sure many would agree, that this sort of thing - Bowie's experimentation with 'queer iconography' - is not as essential nor as radical as Kelley's thesis of 'cultural abjection' might suggest.* Bowie's "Boys Keep Swingin'" video, for instance, does not represent some abject, gender-blurring 'dark night of the soul', nor does it hold some essential in-road to talk on sexual difference. Instead what's offered by the catwalk of cross-dressed Bowies to the song's playful lyrics concerning the primacy of boydom in Anglo society is rather the status of gender in the hyperreal exchange of images that is commercial pop culture, something mutable, reversible, meaningless… If, to use one relevant example, Klaus Nomi, in 1979, is the "real thing," the asexual German countertenor who alters himself to look like an exterrestrial to sing novelty pop songs, then Bowie, in his appearance on SNL that year (dressed like Nomi and actually supplying Nomi as back-up singer), is a copy of a copy.

The Scottish pop-singer and novelist Nick Currie (aka Momus, also highly recommended) did an interesting thing a few months ago on his blog, taking as case study the figure of David Bowie's father, Haywood Stenton Jones (who, if you're to follow my logic regarding Klaus Nomi, might be the image that best encapsulates the true 'concrete universal' - to misuse some Hegel-ese - from which the young David emerges - i.e. what Ziggy Stardust, as the Hegelian 'Beautiful Soul', is at once rebelling against and returning to).  Currie writes,

"I’m also interested in the paradox that although [Bowie] has portrayed extraterrestrials and aliens many times, his father does a much more convincing impression of one, in the sense that a British person pre-1960 is a strangely extraterrestrial being. He’s certainly out of the world that we recognise. There’s a sense of formality and distinctness about him (“the last truly British people you’ll ever know,” in Morrissey’s words) which hasn’t yet fallen into line with the mass global forms of the postmodern monoculture (denim, trainers, Coke, jets)."

Now, with David looking more and more like Haywood, we might envisage, in light of his newest video, Bowie the relic, the British flaneur walking the streets of his past Berlin - the once-pop capital and a city that decades prior witnessed this very singer consuming large mountains of cocaine while Krautrocker Connie Plank hurriedly finishes his album (I'm referring, of course, to the B-side of Low). A flaneur, or a "gatecrasher," if I were to recast it as a Momus lyric, would be an apt title, the master of plasticity. Posing the question to himself "Where Are We Now?" as he assumes a disembodied head amidst a cluttered art studio, has he not returned to the original question that haunts the great bulk of his songs, even some of his worst songs, the ramifications of 'loving the alien', et al? Is not this the same theme of his and Iggy Pop's "China Girl" (for which I must agree with E Hisama is less offensive than the John Cougar song of the same title), where the "authentic," albeit highly romanticized vision of the Orient (summarized somewhat unproblematically in an imaginary Chinese woman) is corrupted by these various forms of Westernized mass productions of culture, by television, magazines, etc.? ... Is not the disembodied Bowie head that floats before the flashing images of the chroma-keyed streets of Berlin, today, a teary-eyed, remorseful one?

- Michael Witte

Michael Witte is a Graduate Researcher at the UCLA Center for the Study of Women

*See Mike Kelley, "Cross Gender/Cross Genre" in PAJ: 
A Journal of Performance and Art, Vol. 22.1. (Jan., 2000), pp. 1-9.

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