Thursday, June 18, 2009

Fame '90

David Bowie wanted to be famous, and he certainly got his wish.

I was listening to Lady GaGa the other day - more or less out of morbid curiosity, since she seems to have overcome the usual resistance to vapid pop tarts in "indie" circles and gained some degree of popularity among people who wouldn't normally like that sort of thing. The interesting thing about Lady GaGa is that she is obviously an extremely intelligent and canny performer: her music is constructed with the most methodical attention to detail imaginable. Every song is built around multiple hooks, every hook is coated in sugar-sweet candy coating, and every available inch of said candy coating is polished to a militaristic sheen. It's ruthless, and the overwhelming, maniacal ambition underlying the proceedings strips it of a great deal of charm or appeal. It's catchy like the plague, but ruthless in execution and intention. I guess the desire to be famous isn't that obscure a motivation in contemporary society, but it nonetheless strikes me as a sick motivation.

Why would someone willingly choose to climb into the maw of the panopticon? Yeah, OK, it's not exactly a new idea but it's appropriate here: in order to be famous a person has to give up everything about themselves in order to become something new, and that new thing is not necessarily of their own choosing. Privacy ceases to become a right and becomes instead a luxury, which means that what most of us regard as our normal, everyday quotidian existence becomes a rare sensation, to be hoarded and jealously guarded. Because if you're famous, most of your life isn't yours: you become a blank slate on which other people, thousands or millions of people, draw their own ideas and their own conclusions. All the millions of eyeballs looking at you act as an exteriorized superego, imposing control through passive and not so passive observation. The term "role model" carries an unavoidably positive connotation, but in terms of celebrity I think our contemporary society has turned the idea of celebrity into a neutral kind of "role modeling": for better or for worse, celebrities serve as avatars of behavior - they inhabit certain supra-real roles - that is seen as socially desirable, regardless of its negative or unpleasant consequences. Paris Hilton, to pick the most egregious and obvious example, is a role model (or was, before her fifteen minutes expired a while back) - not of the behavior you might want your daughter to replicate, but certainly of the type of lifestyle and attitude for which your daughter might just yearn, contrary to best wishes and common sense.

But the problem is that people want to be famous without realizing quite what that means - or, at least, I don't honestly believe they can know, until it's already too late. I don't as a rule like whiny celebrities whining about what a drag it is being famous,,but Radiohead's Meeting People is Easy is a fantastic examplar of just what being "famous" entails: literally soul-crushing exhaustion, boredom, lack of privacy, and just plain constant confusion. Who needs the state to impose the panopticon to regulate our deviant behaviors when we will volunteer for the chance to enter an even worse type of panoptic experience than anything Jeremy Bentham conceptualized, becoming the focal point of a process in which not only our individual behavior is shaven down to the most horrifying mean but our most embarrassing and unpleasant attributes are magnified and replicated across society?

I don't usually like the word "meme" but that's exactly what we're talking about: popular celebrities cease to be people, they become caricatures, and these caricatures become far more "real" than any flesh-and-blood three-dimensional reality. Celebrity caricature is a meme that spreads throughout society with all the virulence of the plague.

So when David Bowie set out to create his own mythologies, he was aware of the way that personality memes can take off and find a life exterior to the original. By putting forth a blatantly fictional template in lieu of a more naturalistic self-caricature, he was engineering the most effective meme he possibly could: a fantasy that fans and admirers and music journalists could latch onto, writing their own fantasies into the little corners of the (really very vague) storyline provided by the albums and the album cover art. To put it another way: how many people can imagine themselves writing Beatles fan-fic? Sure, everyone loves and knows the Beatles, but except in their movies they're still very recognizably real people. But Ziggy Stardust? Alladin Sane? The Thin White Duke? (And are Ziggy and Alladin and the Duke really just the same person in different guises, like a Time Lord?) I would be surprised if there wasn't tons of Bowie fan fic out there, because these identities are gilded invitations to tailor-made all-inclusive immersive fan experiences.

But when fans buy into these mythologies - and it's not just fans as "fanatics", per se, but general audiences and music journalists who accept these ideas as ready applicable shorthand for the man's career - they give credence into the notion of mythologies, the artificial narratives of celebrity culture designed with the express purpose of simplifying - commodifying - people into the form of readily digestible bite-sized chunks. As much as I like Bowie I'm uncomfortable with the notion of identity confusion at the heart of so much of his work, especially his classic period: it smacks a bit of action figure manufacturers designing a dozen different variations of Batman in order to sell as many different versions of the same toy as possible. If you don't have the Arctic Warrior Batman you can't fight Mr. Freeze; you need the Bat-Cycle to get around the Gotham City playset; you need the Ziggy Stardust makeup and t-shirt for the Ziggy Stardust tour, and God forbid you're still dressing up like Ziggy after he's moved on to Plastic Soul.

So there's something very disingenuous about "Fame" - it's my least favorite Bowie song - at least of his prime period, not counting anything from the later, suckier albums. (Amazingly, James Brown plagiarized the vamp - which is remarkable for the fact that it just doesn't sound very funky, more like a coked-up white dude's idea of what funk should sound like, a la "Bennie and the Jets".) It was concocted in the studio with John Lennon on a lark, and it sure sounds like it: just a couple of rich, probably stoned rock stars bumming around, vamping on a lazy riff and coming up with some of the laziest rhymes of either career. It doesn't help that it's just a nasty song, and even more so considering how defensive the whole thing is. Yes, there is good reason to be defensive, because becoming famous means voluntarily abjuring the individual superego, the metaphorical dura of what we regard as our own unique personality. Bowie adopted fictional aliases which became, in the eyes of millions of screaming fans who wanted not merely to be near him but to replicate him, to become him and to be him, more "real" than he actually was. Left without the protection, he's just a disembodied ego under the domination of his supercharged id: lots of cocaine, lots of sex, hell, let's dress up like a Nazi while we're at it. (Of course, Bowie fans don't like to talk about the Nazi thing but what else do you expect from someone as fucked-up as Bowie was at the time?)

So when they're complaining about being famous, there is some truth to the lament, because being famous is an incredibly destructive process that destroys people as often as it empowers them. But at the same time, what did they expect? Lennon gets an out because there is literally no conceivably way he could have predicted the Beatles would be as big as they became - essentially the biggest pop-culture phenomenon of the last half-century. But Bowie? Bowie knew what he was getting into. He waited impatiently for years for his opportunity to jump into the maws of the machine - and then he's got the gall to act surprise when it spits him out piecemeal?

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