Sunday, April 03, 2005

Bowie and 'Meaning It'

My post on John Paul II here, may have given people the wrong impression that I dislike David Bowie. Not so.

I would, in fact, describe myself as a lower-level Bowie fan. His over-the-top vocals, clever arrangements, and outrageous lyrics have always entertained me. In fact, he so entertains me that sometimes when I listen to him on songs like, Little China Girl or Let's Dance, I laugh out loud with delight.

My only point in contrasting Bowie, to whose CD my wife and I listened yesterday, and John Paul II, who died yesterday, was that Bowie, with his overblown theatricality, represented much of the contemporary world's notion of passion. That view sees passion as non-existent or nothing other than our selfish promptings. Contemporary culture derides any notion of real passion--a commitment to a person or cause so intense that the committed one is willing to give one's life--as passe, stupid, or false. John Paul II, on the other hand, was understated, yet genuinely passionate in his commitment to Christ and to the powerless of the world. In fact, his passion was amplified by his understated style of communication and later, by his frailty.

Bowie is one whose cynical tongue is firmly fixed in his cheek. In a way, he represents the spirit of this present age. John Paul, on the other hand, was never a cynic.

My favorite Bowie song though, is one that departs from his usual modus operandi. It has great guitar licks, throbbing bass, and thumping drum, to be sure, all elements which have come to be associated with David Bowie. But his great song, Fame, co-composed with John Lennon and Carlos Alomar, may be unlike any other Bowie song. It's actually about something, its lyrics presenting flashcard impressions of the pitfalls, dangers, and addictiveness of fame. Usually, Bowie's songs give us a hazy picture of late-twentieth century narcissism. One can't tell whether Bowie is endorsing it, lamenting it, or just exploiting it.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a trip my son and I took to Washington, DC, mentioning a stop at the Freer Gallery, where we saw several paintings and an entire room created by the artist, James Abbot McNeill Whistler. Whistler was a proponent of "art for art's sake." Art, he and others insisted, didn't have to be about anything, as earlier artists and patrons of the arts, like the Church, insisted it must. For Whistler, this often meant creating gauzy portrayals of stormy seas or human forms. Whistler attempted to foster feelings and impressions, apart from beliefs, morals, or "points."

Oscar Wilde was one of the writers who took up this same cause, believing that even the written word need not convey a "point" or a "moral," that art could and should stand by itself apart from "meaning." (Although it should be pointed out that Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Grey conveys some pretty powerful messages and meanings.)

Whistler anticipated the cubist painters and other more abstract artists.

Bowie is a kind of "art for art's sake" musician (some would say a "product for money's sake" musician) and, as surely as Whistler or his heirs of the canvas, he has his place.

But people like Bowie never ultimately touch the hearts of most people. To do that, you have to mean what you say. John Paul did.

[Speaking of "fame," you might be interested in this piece I wrote on the effects of fame on the famous.]

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