Is David Bowie’s musical legacy really only worth half that of Bruce Springsteen’s? This was the first thing that sprung to mind when I read the news earlier this week concerning the financial deal inked between the Bowie Estate and Warner Chappell Music, which handed the rights to the Duke’s back catalogue, including the “lost album” Toy released this Friday (on the eve of what would’ve been his 75th birthday), for the modest sum of $250 million, 50% less than The Boss received for his songbook from Sony. If accurate, these figures only confirmed what I’ve long suspected: America never really deserved Bowie.
Trawling back through the tsunami of US press coverage that broke out in the wake of his devastating death six years ago, it’s all too apparent that the Special Man remained a spiky and alien presence in the American psyche; an outlier who was never fully embraced into the mainstream bosom of a country that had fascinated him since boyhood. Bowie is conspicuous by his absence from the Kennedy Center Honors and it remains a mystery as to why, as a self-confessed gridiron fan, he never performed at the Super Bowl halftime show.(1)
His championing of bisexuality and use of dramatic make-up early on in his career certainly handicapped him in what remains a far more puritanical country than most in the West. But while it’s true he never had the same commercial clout in the US as he did in the UK, Europe, Australasia and Japan, his influence on popular music and culture in general -- and the States in particular -- dwarfs not only coevals like Elton John and Rod Stewart, but those colossi that went before him such as The Beatles, the Stones, Dylan and Elvis, and he continues to wield a transgenerational appeal like no other. Every four-year cycle in music over the last five decades has thrown up a whole new crop of Bowie-inspired clones and imitators, most recently with the arrival of the K-pop androgynes.
So while his passing was publicised far and wide Stateside, there was a definite lack of depth in analysing his all-encompassing significance. Time and again, obituary writers failed miserably to hit the milestones of his accomplishments, especially his crowning achievements: that astonishing sequence of albums he made between 1970-1983 that remains the greatest run of albums in pop music history, during which he revolutionised how rock music was presented on stage, on video and album covers. Or the fact that many sub-genres of popular music simply wouldn’t exist without him -- from Glam Rock, Punk and New Wave to Synth-Pop, Art-Rock and Goth.
Putting to one side the fact that none of his classic albums from the 70s were even nominated for a Grammy, let alone won one (Bowie never put much stock into such award ceremonies anyway, and the Grammys have always been a notoriously middle-of-the-road organisation with a sketchy reputation for presenting awards based not on merit but backroom deals), and the surprising fact, for many, that Blackstar remains his only album to reach the top of the Billboard Chart, the American eulogies were often marred by faulty chronology, lazy clichés, and serious omissions. For instance: other than a sole mention by Tamron Hall on NBC’s Today Show, Bowie’s persona of Halloween Jack was MIA from Bowie’s roster of dramatis personae, quite an oversight considering that it was while performing in that incarnation -- far more than Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane -- that broke Bowie big in America, seeing him selling out arenas on the critically and commercially acclaimed Diamond Dogs tour of 1974. While in a widely syndicated paragraph that appeared in USA Today and other newspapers, readers were told that Bowie’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 and his Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006 were among the “few major honors bestowed on Bowie in his lifetime,” because whoever dreamt up with those lines couldn’t be bothered to read the Wikipedia page dedicated to the list of trophies he garnered over the years.(2)
Another egregious example was the truly abysmal write-up in the New York Times, where John Pareles found it fit to mention inconsequential factoids such as how ‘Under Pressure’ was sampled by Vanilla Ice while failing to cite Pauline Kael -- acknowledged as one of the finest film critic of her time -- who hailed Bowie’s presence in The Man Who Fell To Earth as “the most romantic figure in recent pictures.”
While the journalist Bill Wyman chose his Bowie remembrance for Vulture as the moment to argue that Bowie had not written a major song since 1980 and to dismiss Low and Heroes as “overrated.” Though he did profess surprise that not one of Bowie’s landmark long-players of the 1970s made it into Robert Christgau’s annual Top 10 Pazz and Jop poll for the Village Voice, which aggregated votes from most of the leading American music critics at the time.(3) This only reinforced how completely out of step many American music critics were with Bowie’s fleet-footed manoeuvres during his Imperial Period. Some, like Lester Bangs, were openly hostile, but if you fancy a giggle, you should read up and see some of the forgettable dreck they did praise at the time, in his stead.
Furthermore, as most of the obits were penned by men of a certain vintage (Tara Bahrampour at the Washington Post was a rare exception), Bowie’s physical attributes, such as his shattering beauty, through all his guises, as well as his status as one of the major sex symbol’s of the 20th-Century, were barely touched upon; neither were all the beguiling sides of his prismatic personality. Indeed, the picture painted of Bowie as the High Priest of Glam was so overstated in the coverage it ignored the fact that, for the vast majority of his career, Bowie comported himself not like a polysexual vampire from Mars, but as the quintessential suave English gentleman, or “the Cary Grant of Rock” as his sometime sideman Adrian Belew once memorably dubbed him. Accounts of the mesmeric power of his stillness on stage and screen were also only sparingly touched upon, as were illustrations of the intellectual heft of his work, or how his stage name has become an adjective and byword for an artist or any creative work deemed to possess magical, supernatural qualities.
Some American fans were also rightfully miffed that there was no official tribute paid to him by President Obama. (So much for the so-called “Cool President!”.)(4) While it’s true Bowie remained a British citizen, his status was that of a global icon who’d lived in America, off and on, since 1974, permanently since 1995. And with millions of American fans, it would’ve been more than fitting for the president to say a few words or release a statement. But Obama wasn’t the only high profile political snub.
During the ‘90s, Bowie and Iman stumped for the Clintons. They were in attendance at the Democratic Convention in 1992 and were pictured in the company of “Bubba” several times since, yet no encomiums were forthcoming from him or his wife either. Actually, I could find no plaudits penned by leading Democrats at all; whereas in stark contrast, Bowie was praised by then-Republican presidential candidates John Kasich, Rick Santorum and, most notably of all, Donald Trump, who described Bowie as “a great guy” and “a great talent.” Bowie even wormed praised from right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh, who conceded that Bowie was a “supremely talented rock ‘n’ roll crooner,” although the porcine bloviator couldn’t resist a jab at Bowie’s sylphlike frame.
Considering that, in the second half of his life, Bowie appears to have settled into a broadly Social-Democratic position on the political spectrum, it’s ironic that the most intelligent and insightful homages to him came not from left-leaning publications but from conservative periodicals, particularly the National Review, where, in a frank admission, Carl Eric Scott wrote: “Bowie mattered. And social conservatives, part of the reason he mattered is that he was our opponent. A classy, beautiful, intriguing, attractive, articulate, and poetically potent opponent, but all the more damaging to our vision of the good life because of those qualities.” Liberal outlets, meanwhile, whittled on endlessly about Bowie’s influence on transgenderism, a questionable claim, and something he scoffed at when the subject was raised with him in an interview with 60 Minutes Australia in 2002.
Which brings us on to the biggest Bowie slight of them all to occur during this shiva period. Although some of the US cable channels scrambled to put together tribute programmes dedicated to him, none of the network TV channel schedules were altered to accommodate his legacy or mark his passing, providing yet another example of how irrelevant traditional media outlets have become. However, 60 Minutes, the country’s flagship news magazine, did finally run an unaired profile of Bowie that they produced back in 2003 to promote the forthcoming Reality album and tour. But what was billed as a belated celebration for a cultural icon lasted all of three minutes -- right at the end of the programme! And to add further insult, they consigned some extra footage, that could and should have been broadcast, to their website. The programme-makers not only squandered the opportunity to pay a substantive salute, but they provoked an unnecessary backlash that was completely self-inflicted.
- Of course, it’s possible that, like the Crown Honours Lists in the UK, Bowie was offered such enticements but discretely turned them down.
- This page is also missing several other notable achievements including Bowie’s award for Best Male Singer in the British Rock and Pop Awards of 1980; the Berolina Award for Commitment and Service to Berlin 1987; the World Music Legend/Outstanding Contribution to Music Award of 1990, and Bowie’s designation as the Greatest Entertainer of the 20th Century voted by the British public for the BBC’s Icons TV show in 2019.
- Hunky Dory did in fact make the top 10, but only just, by taking the final spot. The Pazz and Jop poll went AWOL between 1972 and 1973, but although Christgau personally bestowed a solid B+ rating on both LP’s, there’s little confidence that either Ziggy or Aladdin Sane would’ve made it into the Top 10.
- The Clinton Library Twitter account did release photographs of Bowie visiting the Clinton White House in 1995. One reason for the silence from the Obamas may have been due to comments made by Iman to Parade magazine back in 2009, in which she stated: “Mrs Obama is not a great beauty,” which garnered headlines, although her following remarks put that opinion in context: “But she is so interesting looking and so bright. That will always take you farther. When you're a great beauty, it's always downhill for you. If you're someone like Mrs Obama, you just get better with age.” If this was indeed the cause for the absence of a presidential panegyric, then it suggests pettiness in the extreme on behalf of the First Family. When the subject of Bowie’s death was raised by the White House press corps, Obama’s press secretary, Josh Earnest, admitted he wasn’t sure whether the president was a Bowie fan but opined: “There are a number of people all across the globe who have talked about how they had been inspired by (Bowie’s) life and his work… there’s no denying the impact of his contribution to art and music and film.”
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