David Bowie’s tragic death has ignited a renewed interest in his fabulous career, a career which serves not only as a testament to his musical genius but to the fact that the music industry has often worked in opposition to our greatest talents. There is a lingering tendency amongst the-powers-that-be in the music industry in this country to put resources behind bland, middle of the road music. In an environment like this, the artists that continue to capture our imagination and craft the biggest, most innovative musical legacies have tended to be those artists who have succeeded in spite of, rather than within, the industry.
It is worth remembering that Bowie’s earliest work in the late sixties was met coldly to say the least, owing in part to little faith and little support on behalf of his record label. Yet he would eventually rocket into stardom with The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, an album which vindicated his prior eccentricities, and go on to fully embrace the mainstream. His groundbreaking use of androgyny, multiple personas, sexuality, alongside other contemporaries like Jagger, Annie Lennox, the Eurythmics, and Boy George, became powerful tools for future pop stars who used their status to question boundaries for artists, from Prince to Lady Gaga. His predictions and opinions on issues like race in music, fashion, and the impact of digitalisation, have also proven to be ahead of the major industry tide.
Following his death, Bowie’s albums have re-entered the charts, knocking off the likes of Adele from top spot. 19 of them. However, he juxtaposition on the charts between Bowie’s albums and those of artists like Adele, for example, says a lot. As I’ve opined before, Adele is a talented artist, but far from the most risk-taking. She has perfected her strengths, but has hardly pushed boundaries with her music, or what Noel Gallagher calls “music for grannies.” Nonetheless, she receives backing from a business which knows that she guarantees hits.
The industry relies on hit singles, and that in and of itself hasn’t ruled out the chance for innovation elsewhere. The most interesting cases of innovation in recent decades have emerged from outside the mainstream, forcing themselves into the public eye from the outside in: think of genres like ‘alternative’ RnB, UK grime, Chicago drill rap.
As interesting as these movements are, however, I can’t help but fail to believe that these artists will evoke the same mass out-pouring of love and fascination that we’ve seen in the last two weeks. Bowie succeeded where few else have: to force the mainstream to his extremes, and by doing so, inspired a common imagination that few artists have been able to tap into.
As exciting and revolutionary as subversive, underground genres can be to experience, there is something untouchable in the moment when an artist is both able to capture the mainstream while in the process of setting creative standards. This is the pinnacle of stardom and popular artistry. While the industry will continue to search out stars, it would do well to honour that the latter element- creativity, originality- is as necessary as the former.