When the exhibition ‘David Bowie Is’ opened at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, back in 2013, Bowie himself was unable to travel for the occasion, so Tilda Swinton offered remarks in his place. She certainly looked the part, black vinyl garment scrunched round her narrow frame, bleached hair arranged asymmetrically on her head. Swinton explained that she’d first encountered Bowie at the age of twelve, when she felt herself ‘a square sort of kid in a Round Pond sort of childhood’. She came across a copy of Aladdin Sane (1973), which famously shows Bowie’s face shot through with a lightning bolt. Swinton did not own a turntable, but she carried the record around with her everywhere for two years, unheard. For her, ‘the image of that gingery boney pinky whitey person on the cover with the liquid mercury collar bone was the image of planetary kin, of a close imaginary cousin and companion of choice’.
Swinton’s words came back to me recently, as ‘David Bowie Is’ landed at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the latest (and last) stop on its international tour. The exhibition has become a cultural juggernaut, attracting million visitors at 12 venues. There are many reasons why Bowie resonates for so many people. But, as Swinton suggests, the most important may be the power of his iconography. It was his images, as much as his music, that established him as our most beguilingly charismatic celebrity.
Bowie was masterful in many visual disciplines, among them graphics, fashion and stagecraft. But his most powerful medium was the one that he essentially invented: music video. He is not often given credit for this, partly because the joining of song and film had many precedents, among them some brilliant ones: Bob Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ with flashcards (1965); the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine (1968). But it is not until Bowie’s promotional film Love You till Tuesday – filmed in 1969 to showcase tracks from his 1967 debut album and upcoming releases – and particularly its sequence for ‘Space Oddity’, that we see the first full realization of the form. A music video is not just a filmed performance; it is a self-standing artwork, for which the song acts as a conceptual armature. Bowie was the first to realize this and the first to create an entirely fictional, narratively complex scenario, in which he was the star performer.
In ‘Space Oddity’, Bowie plays both Major Tom, a doomed and existentially reflective astronaut, and Ground Control, an increasingly distressed terrestrial operator. In the vocal, this bifurcated identity – an early instance of the role playing that was so intrinsic to his work – is achieved by multi-tracking, Bowie singing a duet with himself. In the video, a similar technological doubling occurs: the background image is overlaid with a circular cutout, the metaphorical stand-in for the lens. Lest we miss the point, the first shot features Major Tom drifting into view and then reaching toward the camera, as if to adjust its settings. The video ends with a further bit of meta-textual reference in the form of a space orgy; Jane Fonda’s Barbarella had come out the previous year.
This first of Bowie’s music videos was not seen, because Love You till Tuesday was not commercially released. However, he continued to make them throughout the 1970s, often collaborating with the photographer Mick Rock. What he had discovered was nothing less than the ultimate postmodern form. That may seem a strange claim. The term postmodernism originated in architectural discourse and has since been applied to everything from literature to hairstyles (Bowie’s among them). Yet music video is its quintessential manifestation. It is no coincidence that MTV and Memphis, the postmodern design movement, both launched in 1981.
Indeed, as Dick Hebdige pointed out more than 30 years ago in his book Hiding in the Light (1987), music video was the primary delivery vehicle for postmodernism. Taking the Talking Heads’ ‘Road to Nowhere’ (1985) as his example, he showed how videos exemplified postmodern multivalence not only in terms of content, but in their possible scope of reception: ‘you can dance to it, enjoy the undemanding rhythm, think about its ‘message(s)’, read it allegorically, use it as you like.’Hebdige was one of the very few critics who took videos seriously at the time; but he was right. All the postmodern features of the ‘Space Oddity’ sequence – the genre-fiction setting, the self-referentiality, the identity play – would remain important to music video as it proliferated in the 1980s. Try Devo’s ‘Beautiful World’ (1981), in which a giant monitor that could pass for an Ettore Sottsass design plays a montage of appropriated film clips; they begin innocently enough but crescendo in horror, the lyrics gaining in ironic distance all the while. Or the Eurythmics’s ‘Love Is A Stranger’ (1983), in which Annie Lennox does much what Cindy Sherman was doing with photography at the time. Or New Order’s ‘True Faith’ (1987), a visual essay in neo-surrealist semiotics, with backwards-running tricolour Oompa Loompas.
The most provocative of Bowie’s postmodern progeny was Grace Jones, who adapted his chameleonic shape-shifting act to politically charged effect. In the video for ‘I’m Not Perfect’ (1986), which Jones herself directed, Keith Haring periodically appears, confidently disposing his characteristic graphic figures across an enormous white fabric. Eventually, at the video’s apex, it becomes clear that he has been decorating a skirt for her; with the enormous painted drape hanging from her hips, she is the queen of all she surveys. Yet we have seen her constructed into that role, and in other sequences, she is subjected to various processes that might make her more ‘perfect’ – depilation, acupuncture, massage, psychoanalysis. At one point, she is submerged in a bathtub of paint, from which she emerges bleach-white, like a Kabuki actor. All better now?
Unlike other aspects of postmodern pop culture such as furniture and fashion, which have had to be revived of late, music video has kept going strong all the while, continually finding new platforms. The massively popular and surprisingly avant-garde videos of Lady Gaga and Beyoncé are the direct descendants of Bowie’s early explorations, and what followed in the 1980s. And let’s not forget Bowie’s own last great act: the video for ‘Lazarus’ (2016). From its first lyric (‘look up here, I’m in heaven’) to its final scene, the video was a hauntingly self-aware farewell. Yet it was also a return. There he was on screen, one last time: still floating in a most peculiar way.
‘David Bowie Is’ runs at Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, until 15 July 2018.