Friday, January 22, 2016

David Bowie was a cut-up

Yes, he could be funny

But that's not the kind of cutting-up I'm talking about. This past week, someone linked to a 2013 article from thehitformula that said that one technique David Bowie used to  get his weird and compelling lyrics. (The phrase "serious moonlight" is one of my favorite meaningless yet vivid and understandable lines ever, I think.)

The article goes back to a 2008 interview with Bowie:
In it he described how he often comes up with interesting lyric lines by employing the ‘cut-up’ writing technique used by postmodernist author William S. Burroughs in his controversial novel Naked Lunch. 
‘Cut-up’ is a literary technique designed to add an element of chance to the creative process. 
It involves taking a finished line of text and cutting it into pieces—usually with just one or two words on each piece. The resulting pieces are then rearranged to create a brand new text. 
The cut-up concept can be traced back to the Dadaists of the 1920s, but it was developed further in the early 1950s by painter, writer and sound poet Brion Gysin—and then popularized in the late 1950s and early 1960s by Burroughs. 
David Bowie explained: “You write down a paragraph or two describing several different subjects, creating a kind of ‘story ingredients’ list, I suppose, and then cut the sentences into four or five-word sections; mix ’em up and reconnect them. 
“You can get some pretty interesting idea combinations like this,” he said. “You can use them as is or, if you have a craven need to not lose control, bounce off these ideas and write whole new sections.”
I've always thought of Bowie as a dadaist, a musical heir to visual and other artists like Marcel Duchamp, who defied convention by creating works that refused to answer questions like, "What is it?" Or, "What does it mean?" 
In their way, the dadaists were the heirs of the "art for art's sake" movement that sought a purely aesthetic expression that counted on those who viewed or listened to a piece to decide on its meaning for themselves. 

James Abbott McNeill Whistler is maybe the most famous painter from this movement. Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Cremorne Lights is a great example of what Whistler tried to create and it reminds me a lot of what not only Bowie, but Bob Dylan and others, have often done with their lyrics since the 1960s. As in the Whistler painting (below), they fuzz things up, giving us a new vantage point on reality. 

Bowie was always creating and re-creating himself (though, of course, nobody can really be made new, except by Christ). But the cut-up method is a bit like upsetting an entire tray of Scrabble letters, then searching for the patterns...or defying them. Whatever, such a method does seem to have the potential of uncorking the imagination when it's grown cliche.

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