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The year in review-The Insider

 

Eminently cursed with highly developed cerebral faculties, David Bowie is an artist whose career is a testament to the power of absolute intelligence. I'd dare say a more intelligent artist in pop there may never have been (sorry Sting). His genius for calculation, his near absolute lack of spontaneity, his love for the idea of it all has served him well and its served him poorly. Still Bowie has laid down a radical blueprint for how a modern media icon should manipulate his mythology --record sales notwithstanding.

The rapid turnover of "personas"--supported by a solid stable of collaborators-(David Mallet, Greg Gorman, Herb Ritts, Brian Eno, Carlos Alomar etc), the construction of wholesale "art" scenarios to frame them (concept tours, movies, flirtations with painters, dance companies, soda campaigns), the erudite interviews, the eye scalding dress-up antics, the inflation of humble pop noise to the level of high European art--Mr. Bowie has been impeccable in orchestrating the very structural business of myth making. When he dies they'll be PBS specials about all this.

So here came Outside-, His Majesties' Bold Bid To Restore The Glories Of His Lost Legacy and it was fascinating to listen to this prodigiously talented man emit a piece of work so spitefully off--so willfully outside the truth of the current cultural moment that it was like watching an aging king defiantly setting himself ablaze to earn his subject's waning respect. And God knows the macabre spectacle was fascinating

As a star, Bowie has been a consummate liar ( the very idea of stardom is itself a lie) but ironically its within the tissue of those lies that he has been unblinkingly honest. In the1994 Mark Romanek directed "Jump" video he played a harried corporate executive driven to leap off the roof of his towering skyscraper. The video ends with Bowie smashed on the roof of a car, (but very elegantly arranged) -a retinue of grief stricken mourners filing past . Of course, vanity being what it is, on the last lines of the track ("Got to be-lieeeeve in something ") , Bowie just had to flick his eyes wide open to assure us that David Will Never Die.

Irony is, Bowie is quite The Company Man these days, very much a walking corporation albeit one that merchandises a single product, one unit of content, one intellectual property. He currently maintains a lush, if small production office named Isolar housed in the Olympic Towers overlooking St. Patrick Cathedral in New York City. Isolar essentially decentralizes all fiscal and creative decision making from his new record company--Virgin-- an extremely unusual arrangement borne out of Bowie's power as a legend and his justified paranoia about mismanagement. His management very much works for him and is separated from his lawyers who then monitor the managers rigorously and vice versa. His promotional team resides in-house. All decisions concerning re-mixes, videos, photography and design are orchestrated by Isolar.

Two years ago, Isolar commissioned a focus group study comprised of mostly fourteen year olds and what the survey revealed was that the current record buying target audience, born- in the years 1976 - 1980, had a brutal disregard for history and legacies.

When asked who they considered to be classic rock artists, after a moment of hesitation they volunteered Prince and Michael Jackson and Madonna. When asked what words came to mind regarding David Bowie, they retorted with such telling codes as " Let's Dance" and "gay". (For the record , they had never heard of Blondie, but Duran Duran did cause an excited rustle or two). Subsequent to these findings, the marketing division began to scheme feverently.

How could they reconnect with this disrespectful new generation? Many a fascinating proposition drifted through the flurry of meetings. A collaboration with Jodeci's errant cocksman Devante Swing was thrown in the mix but sadly nixed. Plans for a Bowie cover album were concocted. One member of the marketing team wanted new blood hip-hop and rave artists like Mank re-working anthems like "Space Oddity" , Bowie wanted Axl Rose doing "Rebel/Rebel".

Does the NIN tie-in now loom logical? Can we not see our beleaguered modern icon in a chalk striped Paul Smith suit slumped in the conference room of Isolar playing the "Closer" video over and over again. The legend is listening to the abrasive industrial chords, looking at Mark Romanek's fashionable but transgressive imagery , while checking out Trent Reznor's Soundscan sales figures and going... hmmmmm...

So what's commercial about all this nasty business on Outside, anyway? The splattered image of Bowie on the CD cover, the cheap photo-shop Impressionism -- Virgin must have loved that move. Outside's ingredients: Bowie fronting several personas and voices, music that is neither rock or hip-hop or jazz or rave or R & B but a suitably Eno-esque scramble of found ideas, many of them deservedly nameless. Add to that, a sustained narrative line about a child murder done in the name of art and acute racial consciousness spurting around the accused murderer. And so its a decadent world in Outside- where the main skin color is blue-black and the body temperature way below "0". Its all slashes, gashes and a red cloud of pain. There are no emotional connections to be made to the artist, he's but another representation in a post- photo-shop landscape of warped figurines that upon inspection reveal themselves as porcelain illusions.

Its certainly an "intelligent" endeavor but as narrative construct Angels In America- it ain't. All that verbiage , all that posturing, all that off-center music, what's that got to do with my life in the here and now? Snoop Doggy Dog sent chills down the spine when he did his thing because he was really working a murderous brand of glamour.

It begins to register though as we sink deeper into the CD that Outside:The Nathan Adler Diaries, A Hypercycle- is in a strange way a conceptualist suicide note. 90's Bowie is gleefully carving up 80's Bowie and its a fascinating spectacle. Bowie delights in a self flagellation that becomes self-laceration and this album is the sound of a very deliberate man slitting his own throat and treating us to the gurgle and hiss of his death rattle. Its genius that he can so boldly put his milliennialist angst on display ("All's well: the twentieth century dies"). That's what makes a star a star, the ability to make yourself as intersting to other people as you are to yourself. Nobody winnows in and out of recording studios for 30 years, singing and writing and arranging without developing an ineviable familarity with the medium. When that person is Bowie, those skills are not to be dismmissed. On "The Heart's Filthy Lessons" the emotional anomie is so true you realize this man is truly a brilliant soul singer in his own very Tuetonic way. The sound of his voice, the aural grain is distinctive and accomplished and majestically grim.

"Outside" heralds the passing of an era , the world of 70's fusion art-rock now being rendered extinct by a culture that's becoming fantastically sexual, surrealistically violent and hyper-technological. A time of Pink Floyd concept albums and tours (which is what this whole affair resembles visually and aurally) is giving way to the curious hyper-media world of information fetishism. . What Bowie has done, is something very important, something that has made him what he is today. He has pushed the envelope and plunged ahead bravely, making horrible mistakes on some tracks (e.g, the title piece) but on other tracks (A Small Plot Of Land, Hello Spaceboy) come up with a sound and an essence that could change the way the listener relates to music. This CD cannot be enjoyed passively, it demands a kind of mental inter-activity to undo its tangled puzzles .The shift Bowie evidences on Outside- is of a 70's conceptualist artist trying to map himself into the CD-Rom, multi-media, post-human kind of metaculture.

If you're that former lover who became alienated by the wholesome yet hopelessly muddled Bowie of this 80's and haven't bought a Bowie album since the turn of the 90's, your man's seeking reconciliation. Meet him halfway. There has never been anything like it (Except for a Pere Ubu here or a Captain Beefheart there) and trust us, this particular experiment will never be repeated again. Bowie provides here what he has always provided, poses and postures, concepts and conundrums, piercing intelligence and worst of all vaunted ambition. Call him corny, call him incoherent, call him pretentious but at least call him. He'll give you a heavy aura of "sans duras" (to be aristocratically at the end of one's line) and these days not every pop singer does that. Or even tries.

 

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