Like many artists working in the record industry I’m on an independent label having had the obligatory major label experience. I’ve seen both sides of the industry at work and am aware of the failings and strengths of each. With this in mind I would like to suggest that if the music world is to celebrate David Bowie’s life then we must address our collective responsibility to the betrayal of his cultural legacy.
Although Bowie was assuredly embraced and cultivated by the very mainstream culture he set out to subvert, he never allowed it to misdirect him (Never Let Me Down notwithstanding.) Like all innovators from the underground, commercial success gave him the opportunity to bring transgressive ideas into the mainstream. In part, thanks to him, bisexuality, ambient music, gender fluidity, dyed hair and much of the avant-garde now decorates the walls of our daily lives.
It’s very easy for a small time indie artist like myself, with nothing much to lose, preaching to the mainstream. I’m hardly the greatest musical innovator. And if you’ve busted your ass to get to the point where you can make a fantastic living through music, you’re probably not going to want to disrupt that.
But how many globally successful artists are out there pursuing truly subversive ideas? I’m talking about the kind of ideas that make parents nervous. Kanye perhaps comes close in terms of musical experimentation but for all his creativity he is still mired in the misogynistic wordplay and materialistic concerns of much hip hop. Lady Gaga dabbles in the same areas as Bowie once did, but she offers nothing new.
On the other side of the tracks, the work of an artist as confrontational and radical as Canadian musician Peaches could, if you connect with it, make profound changes in the way you see the world. But she’s hardly likely to be on drivetime Radio 1 or Saturday Night Takeaway.
The truth is modern commercial artists would struggle to act equivalently. Today rock’n’roll is a sleeker business. There’s a formula even for ‘indie’ bands. If you’re on a major label, hell if you’re on a large independent the situation is the same. Your stylist offers you new clothes, which, being a skint artist, you happily accept. Marketing takes off the rough edges on your press release and singles are re-edited according to radio station ‘feedback’. You can of course say no to all these things. Just don’t expect the label to give you further support should the song fail to chart. The clincher is that you are asked to do these things by pleasant, genuine people who love and believe in your music. These are people to whom Bowie probably means the world. They are doing their best to set you up in the marketplace as they understand it, while at the same time re-enforcing the strictures and conservative nature of that very same market. Any fitting tribute from Bowie’s heirs must recognise this issue and begin to find ways to address it.
Make no mistake, David Bowie was interested in and genuinely cultivated mainstream success – but on his own terms, pursuing his own culturally diversifying agenda. He was lucky enough to figure his career out at a time when the corporations were still unsure how to handle rock’n’roll, before the formulas and the marketing men got a grasp on its appeal and ‘alternative’ fashions became corporatised product. To be David Bowie now would require an artist to stand outside and beyond what the man himself brought to the table. One look at X Factor or American Idol will show you that elements of performance art and gender fluidity are now very much part of the mainstream.
Conversely, for smaller, less overtly commercial acts, the door to the mainstream media is now closed. It is enough these days to play the underground circuit and hope for the occasional television or advert synch to help pay the bills.
Where do we go from here? How does rock’n’roll disengage with the establishment to the extent that it retains the ability to reach millions, yet pursue a subversive agenda? Can commercially successful music be any more than sonic wallpaper for a lifestyle choice?
Bowie’s death is a wake-up call to both mainstream artists, independents and those straddling both worlds. The greatest tribute we can pay him is to keep searching for new, dangerous ideas that inspire young people. Great pop music should corrupt the kids and encourage them to reject the ideals of their parent’s generation in search of a better world. As artists, we need to look at our work and our priorities because right now we are failing his legacy by letting the ‘way things are’ in the music industry absorb the life blood out of the great threat rock’n’roll and David Bowie once offered to established culture.
Kev Sherry is lead singer of Attic Lights