"Does it matter if you lie? … your work is often edited and manipulated to produce a certain perspective. If all our truths are based on a series of spiralling misrepresentations, are we then left with searching for… a kind of "gut feeling" for truth? Aren't we just creating truth as a survival tactic?"
- David Bowie in conversation with Tracey Emin, 2001
Like everyone this week, I’ve been thinking about Bowie. About the questions Bowie asked, and how important it is to answer them. About the permissions he gave, and how important it is to swallow them, whole, and keep them in our bellies.
This is not, I should state, any attempt to compete with far more knowledgeable and eloquent tributes. Caitlin Moran’s beautiful piece in The Times this week basically says more than you’d hope your lover/best friend/mother combined could manage when your time comes. And, in truth, I didn’t grow up with Bowie. I haven’t grown up loving his music - which I will blame, forever more, on my parents’ unsettling blend of The Who, Abba, and Meatloaf. So - I’m sorry everyone. I know it’s bad.
But he has come to mean something particular to me, and to many, as a reluctant philosopher of our age. Not in his songs, but in his articulation of those songs; his undressing of his own artifice. Preacher and Practitioner, Performer and Critic, his was the intelligence of a T. S. Eliot or an Oscar Wilde, because he understood the mechanics of his art. He laid it bare for us, without ever showing his hand; nothing ever done without keen consideration of its modes and meanings.
He was conscious, where so many of us sleepwalk through the implications of our daily lives and our creative endeavours. And it matters: because Bowie was the original Brand Man; and we’re still playing by the rules - in our personal and professional worlds - he kept on breaking.
What does branding mean now, in one word? Consistency. What do we seek in our 'personal brands’ and our professional brands; what do we recommend to clients? Alignment. Authenticity. A long straight line from beginning to end with no blips on that reassuringly flat horizon.
We adore this chameleonic creature because he gave voice to something raw and true about the way we really are and the way we can be. His constructed selves - extraordinary, alien, ludicrous, dark, playful, pastiche - remind us of two things:
1. We are always changing. On a cellular, lunar, cyclical, emotional and intellectual level; regardless of the people or values or pursuits we tether ourselves to - and we are, actually, free to embrace this. T. S. Eliot, wordy gloom-mongerer that he was, knew it too, though was perhaps writing on a bit of a downer when he observed that '[w]e die to each other daily. What we know of other people is only our memory of the moments during which we knew them.’ Depressing, sure. But there is possibility in this too: to be something else, write something else, be somewhere else, for a little while at least; clambering out of these oppressive boxes we are put in by grades or context or history of employment.
2. Originality - that other great bastion of modern branding - comes, most often, from conscious, intelligent, and humble appropriation; imitation which seeds creation, and gives credit to its forbears. To deny this fact - to insist of the primacy of individual creation - isn’t just blindness, it’s hubris, as Bowie acknowledged in this wonderful interview with Tracey Emin: ‘so much well-known work over the last 10 years or so has been a restatement of earlier stuff. Everyone from Nauman and Beuys to Koons and Richter has been raided and pillaged. On the shoulders of giants, etc. Although what's been just as fascinating is the reluctance of many observers to credit the original pieces where it might have been appropriate or illuminating.'
Both lessons, for me, are incredible comforts. And taking a moment to read through any of his comments on our modern condition will possibly lend more clarity than a few hours with the Dalai Lama.
So thank you Bowie. I came late to the party. I’m really sorry about that. But I’m here to stay.