Bowie Inc.:
The Man Who Sold the World

by Jeffrey Parker Thompson



What do you say about a once relevant pop artist whose work is no longer interesting? It's a question that critics consistently address in a pop landscape littered with aging rockers who refuse to go gently into that good night. It's a shame that the influential and once mesmerizing David Bowie has entered this club. And just in case you didn't know, David Bowie has a new album out: the forgettable Hours.

Bowie once had the best of both worlds. His music was unlike his contemporaries, forward sounding and complicated. His constantly changing stage personas were fascinating and provocative. In fact, his career was consistently at odds with his contemporaries, which led many to consider Bowie's work avant-garde.

"Sheer provocation and sexual ambiguity..."

In short, Bowie was a pop music innovator. His musical output stood as an alternative to the mainstream sounds that were dominating the airwaves of the late sixties and seventies. He took commercial risks (for example, his 1977 collaboration with Brian Eno, Low). Some of these risks paid off -- others did not. However, when his sound and the purchasing habits of consumers finally found one another in the early eighties, the result was the international hit album Let's Dance.

If we look back over his career, it becomes apparent that Bowie's early commercial risks were the type any entrepreneur might take in order to be successful. In hindsight, it looks more like Bowie was a sort of marketing genius, even when his music stood in opposition to the mainstream. He was offering a product other pop stars weren't selling in the seventies and the bravado with which he took on his different personas was the best advertisement money couldn't buy. Sheer provocation and sexual ambiguity were enough to keep his work from being ignored.



Since the early eighties and the success of Let's Dance, Bowie's music has been relatively uninteresting (with the exception of the Tin Machine project in 1989). In fact, Bowie sells fewer and fewer albums with each release. Yet he is one of the wealthiest pop musicians of all time. The main reason for this apparent anomaly is that Bowie owns the rights to his entire catalogue (a catalogue which he sells to a different record company every few years). That is rare for a pop musician. Another reason for his wealth is, like any successful corporation, Bowie has learned the value of diversification. His website, his art magazine, his partnership in a publishing venture, and his art collecting habits have added to a career that was built on the foundation of pop music stardom.



So why continue to release music whose most obvious characteristic is its desperate need to conform to popular trends (a real shame for an artist whose major innovation was flaunting convention)?

Here's why: marketing.

I bought Hours. I peeled off the plastic wrap and opened the jewel case. Out fell an advertisement for Bowie's website which promised me "exclusive access to David;" I could find rare and unreleased videos, concert footage, and photos (all for a price). Before I listened to a note, I felt as though I had paid for an advertisement.

" might no longer be Bowie's primary form of expression."
Predictably, the music on Hours is entirely forgettable. I have to admit I lost track of which song was playing midway through the disc. I played it again just to be fair. Track 6, "The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell," is fairly memorable for a wailing guitar mixed into a rather repetitive chord structure. "New Angels of Promise" has an interesting electronically manipulated vocal track. Ear candy at its best. Otherwise, not much to report. Going in, I knew that Hours would not blow me away. The last Bowie album to do that was Scary Monsters from 1980. Still, I thought there would be more of interest here than there was.



To be honest, music was not the motivation for my interest in Hours in the first place. It was Bowie's recent involvement in the Brooklyn Museum's controversial show "Sensation" which so irritated his honor, the Mayor of New York; it led me to think that music might no longer be Bowie's primary form of expression. Bowie contributed a substantial sum of money to "Sensation," a show that created its own publicity through the shock value of several works on display (one can view all of these artworks on Bowie's website). The show served to raise the profile of several young British artists whose work Bowie happens to own, thereby increasing the value of Bowie's art collection. Obviously, Bowie is still a "marketing genius." It's just that he's now working in a new arena. His albums serve to remind us that he has other stuff for sale. The medium in which Bowie made his most lasting impact -- pop music-- is now merely an advertisement for other ventures in the marketplace.




please email ducts with your comments.