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DAVID BOWIE: The Vietnam War of pop music or, “You wouldn’t know, because you weren’t there!”

March 10, 2013

BOWIE love is growing with the new album, but that’s neither here nor there, it really only exists because it allows the same sub-strand of rock’s accepted, non contested history to be recycled.

If the rock industry is about both the selling, and commentating on records, then there is a paradox in this industry’s enduring love of Bowie.

While he is an amazing cultural phenomenon, a man who holds the highest place in the collectively accepted canon of the rockist glitterati – journalists, writers and that most nebulous of job titles, the cultural commentator, his albums rarely get heralded as the zenith of rock in that milieu’s most accepted means of recognition – the greatest album list.

Bowie is the central figure in the cultural and sexual awakening of so many rock writers and artists, yet rarely do his records trouble the top 10 greatest albums of all time in the major rock publications.

Using just two sources (Q and Rolling Stone), both documented and anecdotal, Bowie rarely troubles the Top 10 greatest albums of all time. One generation (pre-1995)  always went Beatles/ Stones/ Beach Boys/ Van Morrison, while the latest generation has tended to revere Radiohead/ Oasis/ Blur/ Nirvana. This is not to use this as the optimum cultural arbiter – just to illustrate the gap between Bowie the phenomenon, and Bowie the album artist.

For those of us too young to have experienced the thrill of seeing this one man, androgynous trailblazer, we either unquestioningly choose to believe the accepted ‘he changed the world forever’ narrative, or we revere the odd album, or, more likely, get by with the multiple versions of his greatest hits packages.

The Bowie as ‘apotheosis of counterculture’ industry extends beyond the promotion of old records that have long been sold off by the man himself as bonds on the New York stock exchange. It now encompasses a vast swathe of the collective memories of those who were teenage boys in the early 1970s, that is continually repackaged to sell magazines, books and documentary films.

It has created an accepted truth that is rarely challenged, just like the rest of the so far non-revised accepted history of rock that is constantly trotted out. If the Beatles/ The Stones/ Bowie/ Nirvana et al changed the world, why do we live in more conservative social times, both in music and wider political life, than we ever have done?

Rock as a countercultural history is little more than another marketing narrative, and one that fits with selling Victoria’s Secret lingerie (Dylan), Audi cars (the Beatles) and Microsoft and Kodak (Bowie himself).

Not that this is a relentlessly cynical attack on this industry, just that we could do with re-evaluating the constantly recycled stories, aphorisms and anecdotes that suggest that rock really changes the world.

The accepted belief of Bowie’s effect, from someone too young to have experienced it firsthand, is reminiscent of that old joke: Q: How many Vietnam veterans does it take to change a light bulb? A: You wouldn’t know, man, because you weren’t there!

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