David Bowie’s Radicalism

Source: In These Times

The artist blew our minds wide open.

Philosopher Simon Critchley starts off his new book, Bowie, by introducing us to David Bowie the way he discovered him: July 6, 1972, on the BBC’s “Top of the Pops,” in a catsuit with spiked orange hair and makeup, singing a song about a man come down from the stars. Critchley was 12. Later, his mother bought the single they had heard, “Starman,” and when he played it the first time, “the sheer bodily excitement of that noise was almost too much to bear.”

Bowie, now 67, has put out 26 studio albums, jumpstarted (and killed) genres, and shaped the course of rock ‘n’ roll. His first album came out in 1967; his latest, after a 10-year hiatus, was released in 2013. It is impossible to say how many artists he’s influenced. When rock was dominated by masculine swagger in the 1970s, Bowie shattered a generation’s ideas about gender and sexuality, first by performing in long hair and dresses, then in character as the alien messenger Ziggy Stardust, in glitter stage makeup and that famous orange hair—not to mention a signature move onstage where he’d simulate fellatio on bandmate Mick Ronson’s guitar.

Critchley finds something important in Bowie’s costumes and alien characters: permission to do something other than grow up in suburbia and get a 9-to-5 job. “There is a world of people,” Critchley writes, “for whom Bowie was the being who permitted a powerful emotional connection and freed them to become some other kind of self, something freer, more queer, more honest, more open, and more exciting.” 

Many critics (Lester Bangs, for instance) have made the mistake of reading Bowie as all image—a chameleon with no substance. But Critchley, who teaches philosophy at the New School of Social Research in New York and has written books on subjectivity and “the ethics of deconstruction,” is explicitly opposed to the idea of rock “authenticity.” Even the structure ofBowie—an eclectic little pocket-sized volume of short essays, illustrated with sketches by Eric Hanson, and interwoven with stories from Critchley’s life and with meditations on art, music, identity, and life itself—argues against narrative unity or a stable identity. “Art’s filthy lesson is inauthenticity all the way down, a series of repetitions and reenactments: fakes that strip away the illusion of reality in which we live and confront us with the reality of illusion,” Critchley writes.

Embracing that “reality of illusion” allows us to find freedom and pleasure in trying on different identities and casting them off when they no longer fit. “Just as Bowie seemingly reinvented himself without limits,” Critchley writes, “he allowed us to believe that our own capacity for changes was limitless.”

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