It’s hard to think of an artist who has used the media as part of their art more than David Bowie did. To me the classic example is 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars: As an obscure singer/songwriter, Bowie wrote and recorded an album about an obscure singer/songwriter who rises to superstardom, succumbs to decadence and retires to obscurity—and he used it to rise to superstardom, only to succumb to decadence and retire to obscurity (for a time). It may be the greatest called shot in artistic history.
Among many other things, Bowie was a shrewd observer and sharp critic of the media–from his earliest hit, 1969’s “Space Oddity,” in which Major Tom is told that “the papers want to know whose shirts you wear.”
It’s a central theme of his pre-Ziggy masterpiece “Life on Mars?” (1971), a haunting meditation on the gap between the consumption (and creation) of media and the experience of life, which grotesquely observes:
It’s on America’s tortured brow
That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow
Now the workers have struck for fame
‘Cause Lennon’s on sale again
1974’s Diamond Dogs, which began as Bowie’s attempt to translate 1984 into a rock opera idiom, naturally takes on the press as part of Big Brother’s apparatus:
I’m having so much fun with the poisonous people
Spreading rumours and lies and stories they made up
You could mistake that for typical rock star griping about bad publicity—though few rock stars would compare those who “wrote up scandal” with “les tricoteuses,” the women who knitted by the side of the guillotine during the French Revolution.
His 1975 album Young Americans included “Fame,” a bitter attack on celebrity culture that was a collaboration with the same John Lennon who was on sale again in “Life on Mars?” It also includes a portrait of a messianic figure described as “the savage son of the TV tube” in “Somebody Up There Likes Me.”
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Adopting the Big Brother-ish persona of the Thin White Duke in 1976, at the height of his cocaine-fueled mania, Bowie released on the album Station to Station a song called “TVC 15” that remains ahead of its time as a nightmare vision of total absorption by media, represented by “a very good friend of mine,” the singer’s “quadraphonic…hologramic” multichannel television set:
I brought my baby home, she sat around forlorn
She saw my TVC 15, baby’s gone
She crawled right in, oh my, she crawled right in my
So hologramic, oh my TVC 15
Oh, so demonic, oh my TVC 15
Off cocaine and secluded in Berlin from the fame monster he had ridden so brilliantly, Bowie produced some of the best work of his career—producing a three-album trilogy that concluded with Lodger (1979), which included some of his most direct political commentary in the song “Fantastic Voyage”: “And the wrong words make you listen in this criminal world.”
In 1980, Bowie released Scary Monsters, after which every album he released was doomed to be described as his best since Scary Monsters. In the album opener “It’s No Game,” he alluded to the themes of charismatic dictatorship, martyrdom and the power of corporate media that obsessed him from the beginning of his career:
Draw the blinds on yesterday,
And it’s all so much scarier
Put a bullet in my brain,
And it makes all the papers