Niall O'Sullivan

high brow, low brow, none of that stuff in the middle

Treading Water: Bowie and the Illusion of Reinvention

Posted on | January 9, 2017 | No Comments

If you haven’t yet caught Bowie: The Last Five Years, the BBC documentary that screened on what would have been David Bowie’s 70th birthday, almost one year exactly from his death, then I suggest you find some way of doing so. Far from being sombre and elegiac, it focused on Bowie’s energy and creativity during his final half decade.

One particular clip of Bowie got my mind racing, especially in the context of all the write ups that bring up Bowie’s knack for reinvention. Interviewed during what must have been the the promotional rounds for Earthling (dyed red hair late 90s Bowie), the musician had this to say on the subject of change and experimentation:

“If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet aren’t quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.”

Sure, this was Bowie advocating against being safe in your creative practice, but at the same time, he’s not exactly expounding the ethos of wholesale reinvention either. He instead encourages a cautious foray into the unknown. “Go a little out of your depth” isn’t exactly the same as “Jump off the deck of a cruise ship once it’s halfway across the pacific”

We see this cautious experimentation echoed throughout his career. While his Berlin albums strayed into new territory with his ambient works, the other half of each album in that trilogy contained the same Rock’n’Roll formula, served up by the same musicians working with him across multiple albums. Bowie might have adopted a number of different looks and personas but the music never strayed as far from the blueprint as we like to think it did.

Isn’t this really what is meant by the term “experimentation” when we look at its scientific origins? Changing a few variables here and there to see what differences are created and whether they might lead to a breakthrough? In the same manner, no scientist (as far as I know) went from decoding the double helix one moment to finding the Higgs Bosun the next. Sure, Francis Crick and Roger Penrose went from their respective Nobel winning achievements to trying to crack the mystery of human consciousness, but neither was particularly successful in their second pursuit.

Similarly, Bowie’s one dramatic break from his past is one of the least celebrated phases of his career — during the late 80s when he decided he was not going to play the old songs any more and focused on new material with his band Tin Machine instead. While I don’t think those two albums are anywhere near as bad as many said they were (listen to them, they’re better than the three solo albums that preceded them), it was his reacceptance of his past that led to the much loved later albums from Heathen through to Blackstar.

So arty farty types, try not to be seduced by the doctrine of reinvention. Instead, take a cautious paddle beyond the confines of the learning pool and see what happens when you’re just treading water. Once you’ve found yourself making an assured change of direction, simply make a few drastic changes in your wardrobe (grow a beard/shave the beard, swap your dress for suit or vice versa, grow your hair/shave your head) to complete the illusion.

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