David Bowie, Bourgeois Hero?
By Alberto Mingardi
A book review by Samuel Goldman on The American Conservative alerted me to “We Can Be Heroes: The Radical Individualism of David Bowie” by Robert Dean Lurie, a short e-book whose title is self-explanatory.
I shall confess I wasn’t much of a Bowie fan before he passed away a few months ago. But when I listened to his last work, I was struck by how powerful it was and have been on a long journey in Bowie self-education ever since.
This little book by Lurie aims to explain why the praise bestowed on David Bowie by the “conservative intelligentsia” was completely understandable – and should not surprise anyone at all. He sees Bowie as the Howard Roark of pop music, “intransigent in the face of widespread derision.” For Lurie, Bowie “came closer [than most other pop entertainers of our time] to constantly embodying the Randian artist-hero ideal”.
Lure’s book is a tour-de-force into _possible_ influences over David Jones’ thinking, from Friedrich Nietzsche to Edmund Burke (I suppose pop music makes strange bedfellows too).
I don’t really know about that, and I’m of two minds on the subject. On the one hand, certainly pop music and other forms of popular entertainment (think about graphic novels or TV series) are certainly easy to digest material, but crafted at such a level of sophistication that dismissing the brain power behind them seems to be an unwarranted act of intellectual haughtiness. Painters were big in being inspired one from the other, and so were novelists. Why shouldn’t it also be the case with pop stars?
On the other hand, I think pop stars loom so large in the public’s imagination that we tend to read too much into them. We tend to make them into prophets – and they do not necessarily aim to be prophets. I’d go with Goldman when he points out that “It doesn’t diminish Bowie’s achievement to doubt that he was a prophet of radical individualism. Rather, it is to place that achievement in its appropriate field–music–while leaving philosophy and literature to the philosophers and writers.”
Nonetheless, Lurie mentions a 1996 interview on the Netherlands television, when Bowie explained that
I don’t think anybody in my family ever belonged to ‘groups’. We’re not group people. We tend to be very self-sufficient people. Give us a book and a paintbrush and we don’t really need anything else.
This sense of self-reliance is not necessarily consistent with the attempt to read Bowie as a Randian hero: but it resonates with something lots of people wrote on the occasion of Bowie’s death. He was rather often singled out for his “bourgeois” lifestyle: living in New York, he was rather content with an anonymous, “regular guy” life style, which stood in contrast with all his purported “excesses” of the seventies. Bowie apparently felt at ease in a commercial society, as Daniel Finkelstein pointed out in this article. Taking the Proust questionnaire, Bowie mentioned as his hero in real life “the consumer”.
Bowie wasn’t necessarily a champion of individualism: but he apparently understood well that his creativity was at the service of his public. A happy bourgeois attitude.