INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Music FEBRUARY 10, 2016 - by Brynn Davies
WHAT WOULD BOWIE DO?
I'm going to talk about controversy. Actually, I'm going to compare 1970s controversy to 2016 controversy. Even more specifically, I'm going to (endeavour to) compare Lady Gaga and David Bowie.
Following the announcement of Lady Gaga's tribute performance to the fallen Thin White Duke at the Grammy Awards later this month, I have sat and pondered the same question that Gaga claimed, in an interview, that she asks herself every morning: "What would Bowie do?" Instead of answering that right away, let's take a look at what David Bowie did.
The defining moment that separated David Bowie's androgyny from the glam-rock crowd of the '70s can be pinned on the original album cover of The Man Who Sold The World. It pictures Bowie wearing a dress and draped comfortably on a lounge, long tresses framing his make-up-free face and evoking more of a flower child spirit than straight up cross-dressing. (The cover was later withdrawn by his label RCA and reissued with a more gender specific image - a rock'n'roll macho kick.) He shocked the cultural scene with his embrace of sexually ambiguous looks and characters, playing into his elfin features with that make-up and a highly stylised theatrical flair that actually encouraged speculation of his sexuality in a time where homosexuals, let alone transgender people, lived in fear of discovery. He was known for being a camp icon, leading the way forward in the public eye without ever really revealing his own alliances. During the most crucial decade of his career he embodied an approach to sexual identity, celebrity and the rejection of a fixed self that currently obsesses us. He had an alternate self before social media gave everyone the ability to live vicariously through a constructed image. He has been both Christ and a Goblin King, a spaceman and a Duke, pushing drag and theatrics to the boundaries of taste and decency, transcending the label 'mega star' to become, instead, a cultural icon.
And then there is Gaga. For the record, I like Lady Gaga. I will be the first to admit that she is, indeed, an incredibly talented and progressive mega star. Her video clips are unique, her live shows are - if nothing else - spectaculars of experimental theatrics. She obviously draws on Bowie as an influence - a fact that she has readily provided in countless interviews over her career.
But, and this is a big but, she is wrong for the role of tribute. Everyone is welcome to draw as much influence from the greats as they wish. But what Gaga has become in all of her efforts to emanate the star is a shadow of the original. Ignoring her actual music, the self-styled shock-pop star has endeavoured to secure her status as 'timeless' by performing fully naked on stage, wearing a dress fashioned entirely from raw meat and from her 2011 Grammy entrance that involved her escape from an egg-womb. I can't say I've ever been scandalised or even mildly shocked by any of the above. An attempt at avant-garde art that borders on the weird and absurd isn't groundbreaking in the twenty-first century - we've see it before, it doesn't mean anything.
Bowie's controversy came from acts that were at once pure theatrical genius and wider social commentary - on self-expression, on gender fluidity, on a musical landscape that was moving from conservative rock to genre malleability. It came from smiling a warped, toothy grin and completely ignoring everyone that called him a queer, applying another layer of glitter in the process. He wasn't just a pop singer; he was a pop singer that led a cultural revolution. No, he's not the only one. But it means that a tribute to his life and career - the man, the music and the multiple identities in between - in light of a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award, should be given to one, if not many, of his contemporaries that lived, worked and knew the Bowie behind Ziggy.
Mick Jagger, Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, Mott The Hoople - these are artists who all knew, worked and became close friends with the star, taking great pains to pay tribute to his death in their own way and would have been just as, if not more, relevant to pay tribute to the man that they knew. The man that defined the era they lived through. Gaga, at twenty-nine, cannot know the true impact of his legacy despite its own part in shaping her musical identity. An "experimental... multi-sensory testament" to Bowie in three or four of his own songs leaves them open to being incredibly butchered by her own reimagined performance, character and style as opposed to a tribute that celebrates his identity, his flair and above all, his wondrous time as a mortal before rejoining the stars.
I don't know what Bowie would do if he knew that Mother Monster will pay the ultimate public tribute to his life. But I can say with near certainty that he wouldn't want to be remembered by a naked megastar crawling out of a jellied egg.