David Bowie’s aesthetics of eclecticism

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Anyone wishing to attribute an adjective to the phenomenon David Bowie would be spoiled for choice: alien, ambiguous, androgynous; beautiful and Buddhist; chameleon, complex and contradictory. We are only at the third letter of the alphabet, although we are fiercely selecting. Let’s continue for associations: camp, cool, drag, freak, glam. Decadent, expressionist, romantic. Or, instead, for interests: transvestitism, esotericism, futurism. Nihilism, existentialism, solipsism. And why not for themes? Here are some: double, Space, madness, monstrosity. Death. Or for skills: dancer, actor, model, mime; singer, composer, musician, producer. And furthermore: painter, writer, designer, and costume designer. The truth is that Bowie thought of himself as a storyteller whose characters were rendered through multimedia writing operations including music, fashion, makeup, performance, photography, and video.

Both iconoclastic and imaginative, Bowie channeled his worldview through music, of course, but also through other artistic forms: photographic portrait, which owes both to the classic Hollywood promotional photos and to the style of fashion magazines, and to the masters of light in European cinema; body language, enhanced by choreographic choices and pantomimic training at the school of Lindsay Kemp; storyboarding and painting, the latter being an art to which he has often dedicated himself even during the recording sessions of his records: two techniques he drew to merge the visual to the sound on the stage.

Speaking of painting, Bowie also devoted himself to it at times when he was in a creative cul-de-sac during the composition of music or song lyrics. The act of visualizing the impasse allowed him to find a solution, because his approach to the arts has never been compartmentalized; on the contrary, it was thanks to an aesthetics of eclecticism that he managed to draw from the flow of a multifaceted inspiration the artistic product he was working on. Sometimes musical, sometimes visual, often belonging simultaneously to both artistic expressions, Bowie’s production has always been oriented to a concept of total and multimodal art. A forge of ever new creative orientations, thanks to his versatility the artist-world David Bowie has become master and landmark of an era.

In the 1970s Bowie perfected role-playing in pop, making theatre and popular music one thing. In the same decade, he imported the coolest sounds of American black music to the benefit of the audience of British (white) pop music fans, inaugurating in the UK the vein of blue-eyed soul. It is the same person who in the three years 1977-1979 produced with Eno and Visconti the avant-garde “Berlin trilogy”, before dictating, in the eighties, the ways in which pop should combine with video.

Plurality of musical traditions, aesthetic syncretism and attendance of other cultures inform Bowiean artistic production. The Thin White Duke’s iconic status originates from music and style but is consolidated through performance, technology and marketing, which catalyze an incessant rewriting of himself marked by experimentation. It should be noted, however, that, since his adolescence, the one who will become Bowie proved to be very attentive to his image and determined to self-promotion. In 1962, at the age of fifteen, he made the decision to change the name of the band he was part of from Kon-Rads to The Konrads and his from David Jones to David Jay: the bravado with which he wears the mod suite and sports a standard forelock is witnessed by the photos in which the young David already poses as a star. In the early stages of his career, David desperately pursued fame wherever he thought he could catch it, up to the sci-fi spark that would produce first the song Space Oddity, then the character Ziggy Stardust.

It is however true that, if in the seventies Bowie pursued fame in an alternative and desecrating way, in the eighties he accepted in all respects the rules of show business and became a corporate artist, as opposed to his own near-indie or alternative past. David began to sell, before the products of his creativity, the brand “Bowie”. To this end, he modified his look for the benefit of the right-thinking; he played in more commercial films; he put more accessible music on the market; he encouraged the diffusion of merchandising; he exasperated the cross-media connotation that had always characterized him; finally, he signed with EMI America, thanks to Let’s Dance (1983), a contract that catapulted him into the category of the super rich.

Being aware that the medium is the message, in order to become an international pop icon Bowie associated with each new musical project a specific line of costumes, collaborated in designing the album cover’s artwork, underwent photo sessions shot by masters of light, had a voice about the show’s choreography and scenography, and worked on the concept for video clips that still have an unsettling visual impact. The keywords of his vision of pop were ‘recognizability’ and ‘three-dimensionality’. He also had a great nose for surrounding himself with talented collaborators, let alone his almost paranormal ability to predict the developments of popular music trends and the modes of its distribution. When, therefore, at the beginning of the eighties, thanks to the birth of MTV the success of a song became inextricably linked to the success of its transposition into video clips, Bowie, who had focused on image since the beginning of his career, seized the opportunity and decided to become a pop star for all intents and purposes.

For Bowie, the act of singing corresponded to that of writing. The musicality of David’s voice was capable of simultaneously conveying non-linguistic meanings and vocalized language. His sound emission possessed the gift of grain, i.e. the body in the singing voice.  By refusing to separate sound and image, Bowie abdicated the mere role of composer and performer, becoming himself a text, a semic multimedia network whose voice becomes the fetish.

Thanks to the declination of his music within a multimedia project based on performance art, Bowie occupies a privileged position in the western imagination. Starting from music, the consistency of Bowie as a cultural icon flows through performance, technologies, interactive sets and marketing. While questioning and reinventing the styles of creativity, Bowie affirms his primacy in the sign of innovation and experimentation, determining a new vision of mass consumption. The music produced by Bowie on his records has programmatically baffled the listener. Folk, rock, soul, funk, pop, electronic, jazz, ambient, techno, jungle, drum’n’bass and industrial alternate in his records and prevent us from ascribing his work to a specific musical genre. Transvestitism, the themes of space and madness, and the literary dimension of numerous texts contributed in turn to make Bowie a cultural icon, while the versatility of his singing style allowed him to embark on all sorts of sonic adventure. Even the modes of representation were eclectic: Bowie has practiced and contaminated music hall, vaudeville, pantomime, cinema, musical, cabaret, theater of cruelty, and modern dance. 

Contamination, syncretism and an aesthetics of the remix are the salient features of his artistic practice and place him – in line with postmodern sensibility – at the intersection of élite and mass culture.

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