I’ve been thinking about what Bowie meant. My conclusion for today is that he embodied the pow-pow-power of pretension as a transforming, liberating force.
Embracing pretension helped Bowie escape the mundanities of suburbia. Doing so, he allied himself with flamboyant symbols of apolitical resistance to straight life like the Dandy, Flaneur or Whitman’s loafer. All of whom used their appearance to make the point that they weren’t worker drones.
Pretension and Bowie’s children
Bowie’s cheerful pretension offered an example for British kids who might otherwise have been eaten by suburbia, drab council estates or muddy fields to escape their fate. A whole army of trainee aliens had a new cool blueprint to follow. We were not alone.
So it’s always struck me as ironic that punk, so heavily influenced by Bowie, triggered an obsession with being authentic (in this case, working class) and, by implication, ordinary. For me, as a weird kid growing up in deepest Suffolk, the mysterious other became Brutalist council estates.
(Apologies to my many American readers who find the Brit obsession with class both baffling and irritating.)
Peacock pretension went out the window and in came a kind of horrible ordinariness, in the form of Paul Weller, Sham 69 and then the 2-Tone lot.
(I was at university around the time of 2-Tone. Looking back, it’s hilarious and cringe-making to remember how we prised off our aitches and flung them to the floor before stamping on them with our new, squeaky DMs. I had a friend from Greenwich who spoke pure Sarf London back then. Five or so years ago I saw her on TV, doing a report on a football match somewhere in the drizzly Midlands. Her voice was pure BBC, as of course mine is now.)
The curse of ordinariness
Ordinariness, especially since Britpop, has pretty much defined music and fashion in the UK for the past thirty years. (I'm not sure why but it's American popstars from Marilyn Manson to Gaga who've really gone for the weirder than thou ticket.) Authenticity manifests itself in the ‘craft’ of Coldplay and the horrific adherence to traditional ‘rock’ values of Oasis. Or, it’s about co-opting hip-hoppy blackness, whether of the West Indian or gangsta variety.
Whither the peacocks of yore? (Actually, ‘The Peacocks of Yore’ would make a geat late period Bolan album title.) And why does it matter?
Because along with pretension comes liberation through jawdroppingly great ideas. Bowie turned me onto Burroughs. He helped blow my teenage mind.
Resistance through pretension
In 1977, a terrible second-wave punk band by the name of Chelsea released a preposterous single called ‘Right to Work’. Reviewing the single for the NME, Julie Burchill said a song called ‘Right Not to Work’ would be more to the point.
Today, we’ve been brainwashed into thinking that only the very wealthy can be Dandies, Flâneurs or Loafers. For the rest of us, being busy busy busy is the new rock and roll. And we should be grateful for what we’re given.
At his finest, Bowie was about stealing what you want – in his case, Little Richard’s flash, Iggy’s bloody-nosed daring, Genet’s pungent subversion, big girl’s blouses – and making it your own.
Of course it was pretentious. Thank Cthulhu for that!