an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 13, January - May 2016, ISSN 1552-5112

 

 

David Bowie and the Cool of Kitsch

 

 

Thorsten Botz-Bornstein

 

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Was it not disturbing to receive news of David Bowie’s death on January 10, 2016, at a time when the media were full of reports of terrorist suicide attacks and the deaths of innocent people? Bowie represents everything that terrorists are opposed to. With his glamour, transgressions, and lust for life, he symbolized that part of Western culture that puritans can stomach least. However, what did Bowie stand for more precisely? Being a hero for one day, ashes to ashes… In his last video Lazarus, he sings “Look, I am in heaven.” This forms a contrast, though at the same time, a strange consonance with the new culture of heroic death all of which is captured by the media.

 

When I was in high school we were listening to The Clash, Iggy Pop, and Bowie. How did those elements fit together? The Clash and Iggy were punk and neopunk - but Bowie was pop. The rationale of this strange synthesis became clear to me only much later. Thinking back to the early eighties, my friends and I were pegged into the stuffy postwar world of respectable middle-class parents and neighbors. It was a suffocating environment that the preceding hippy movement had not been able to entirely eliminate. We wanted to be different, but how? The Clash and Iggy Pop were what we wanted to be, but we knew that we never could. Bowie, on the other hand, was more like us: a thin, white boy, intellectually-tempted, and rather awkward. A random television interview available on YouTube shows Bowie as a seventeen year old youth, looking like the typical suburban kid caught between submission, modest provocation, and embarrassment. His only answer to the social pressure of his environment is the shy insistence on being allowed to wear long hair. A similar awkwardness is still visible in the original video of Space Oddity from 1969.

 

Yes, Bowie was very much like us. The Bromley mock-Tudor houses were similar to the non-descript terraced houses that we were living in. He, too must have felt tortured by the hypercorrect, hypocrite behavior of the petty bourgeoisie with its imbecile expectations and interdictions. In an interview he once said that parents “fuck you up” and called his mother “repressive” and “a snob.” Most probably, he did not know how to respond to this environment.

 

But here is the thing: Bowie overcame his initial awkwardness not by imitating the toughness and violence of street culture. Instead, he did what we believed to know rather well: he worked very hard. Very early Bowie took lessons from a pantomime who was showing him how to control his rubbery arms and legs, how to make his gestures less random and more determined. In Bowie’s body movements we recognized our own edginess that had been imposed upon us by a functional and narrow reality; hopeless in both moral and aesthetic terms. The difference was that his angular movements had become stylized and aesthetic. On the other hand, until the end, his body movements remained rather mechanical and robot-like. This even became his trademark. In my opinion, the most fascinating thing about Bowie is his strange hand movements.

 

Bowie never acquired the natural swag of the tough ones. There has never been any rhythm in Bowie either, but his appearance stands for white and western theatricality. I guess that’s why we could so easily identify with him. In his last video, Lazarus, he is receding backwards into the wardrobe that is standing in his hospital room, dressed like a skeleton. Once again moving like a robot, he appears to be disappearing into the dark and square-shaped space of his youth that he had come from sixty years earlier.

 

For us Bowie was light; he was a revelation. Maybe we emaciated, nerdish kids from the European suburb could be cool, too? Bowie had overcome the constraints of his petty bourgeois space and established a new reality simply by modifying his own body movements. He had managed to control his body, to stylize it, to aestheticize it. And he stylized and aestheticized it very well. He was like a reincarnation of Nietzsche who had written that one should always look at the philosophers’ feet. Look at how they are walking, look at their body movements. “There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy” (Zarathustra). The rest (the mind, the intellect) comes only later. For us this meant that you can eat your cake - and have it, too, because the mind and the intellect will not be entirely forgotten. You don’t have to be stupid in order to be cool. That’s what Bowie taught us.

 

Bowie’s world was made of style, but there was also some substance. The substance was the coolness that mysteriously flew out of this entire aesthetization project. This was not the mannerist imitation of streetwise toughness. The coolness was – strangely – very honest. It was no pose, but had become an attitude, always linked to the boyish honesty that he could maintain until the end. Bowie seemed to be constantly saying: ‘that’s precisely how cool you can get as a thin, frail, shy, white, suburban kid. Not more and not less. Take it or leave it.’ Back in the eighties, we tried to take it. Taking this appeared to be easier than taking Iggy Pop or the whole punk thing. Iggy was tough and, even worse: he was born tough. Iggy could be admired from a distance, and we felt that Bowie probably admired him just like us, from a distance. Still he had managed to get closer to him, but he could do that only because he had been working very hard. Bowie was not born cool, but he became cool. That’s what makes him rather unique in the landscape of twentieth century cool guys.

 

Not everybody can be born rich. However, not everybody can be born poor either. The majority of Western youngsters are white, middle class, provincial kids who have to count on their skills to be successful. Bromley of the sixties is what most Western kids are living in. If they want to be cool, they will probably imitate hip hop styles or try to speak English with a black American accent. Some – though fortunately not very many – flirt with terrorism because they find the cool swagger of the ISIS soldier more tempting than anything else.

 

Bowie was constantly transgressing, too: towards punk, towards the feminine gender, towards fascism when adopting the “emotionless Aryan superman” character of the Thin White Duke, complete with a Hitler salute in 1976 (he later said that he had been completely stoned, which is probably true). However, whatever he did, he did so only through theatricality and play. It was no real transgression. He never stopped being a poet, which is the main characteristic of a dandy who is not just wearing clothes, but who is wearing them in a certain way.

 

Bowie was playing with fire, always transgressing but never giving in to the simplistic, the clearly defined, the obvious... In later years, Bowie abandoned punk and the feminine, but one transgression would remain constant during his entire career: the transgression towards kitsch. One reason why Bowie was cool was because he could manipulate kitsch without being absorbed by it. Bowie was “kitsch-cool,” if such a thing has ever existed. In “Diamond Dogs” Bowie sings of “just another future song, lonely little kitsch.” Well, maybe he mentions it only because it rhymes with “bitch.” Few people manage to manipulate a dangerous item like kitsch without losing their coolness. Warhol could do it. Jeff Koons could do it. Some hip hop artists can do it, too. Of course, glam rock was kitsch by definition as it indulged in purple, orange, lime green, and metallic. In “Space Oddity” Bowie brought in tons of more kitsch: futuristic kitsch. When glam rock was over, Bowie turned towards other kitsch items. His crooning style of later songs like “Slip Away” from Heathen sounds like a parody of the ultimate kitsch song; and this singing style even became his new trademark.

 

Finally, the nerdish youth from Bromley had outdone everybody. Kitsch became an empowerment of coolness. While tough people like punks are not allowed to show too much emotion, Bowie could indulge in beautiful feelings without being ashamed of it. And his fans were indulging in those feelings, too. Among them were some of the world’s most puritan Western intellectuals who would normally never have come close to such music.

 

There is a Japanese aesthetic term called “iki,” and I have always thought of Bowie when hearing this term. Iki means “stylish” and “chic” but with certain specifications. The Japanese philosopher Shuzo Kuki has placed “iki” within the oppositional tension between “sweet” and “sour” or “astringent.” This is exactly what Bowie impersonates. Kitsch is merely sweet but Bowie’s astringent facial expression allows all kitsch to become iki.

 

Let us now come back to the other dead people, the jihadi-cool people who decide to go to Syria to fight for the Islamic State. They obviously believe they are cool while drifting on their tanks, entirely clad in black, with their long hair flowing in the wind. However, they are not cool at all because they are merely longing for the sweetness of death, for unmitigated heroism, and for eternity. That’s the worst kitsch ever: it is simplistic, exaggerated, and self-gratificatory. What is lacking is the astringent element. I said above that Bowie taught us that you don’t have to be stupid to be cool. Obviously, those people did not have the right teachers.

 

              

an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 13, January - May 2016, ISSN 1552-5112