Monday, January 11, 2016

Musical Explanation 1/11/16: Space Oddity by David Bowie

I don't claim to be either an expert or even a lover of David Bowie's music. In my limited knowledge of him, I'll try to write something about his music today. I do, though, think he was deserving of enormous respect. Compared to Eno, he wasn't much of a musician (few people are). His costumes always changed, but the music remained fundamentally the same throughout his career - the same incomprehensible lyrics, the same arrangements that sounded like 1950's rock'n roll through a funhouse mirror that were inevitably done by somebody else. Where he was truly talented was in the realm of harmony - Bowie's key changes were not as moving as Neil Young or (shut up) Randy Newman's, but they thrilled because they took you to a harmonic place that was completely unexpected. When you compare him to a lot of the three-chord structures from the decades that followed, Bowie sounded like a downright musical genius, which he assuredly wasn't. His music, however, comes to life when you see him perform it in a way it never can on spotify. The electricity, and sophistication, of his performance, more than makes up for what he lacks in talent as a composer or lyricist. He was more magician than musician.

Had Bowie been five years older, he'd probably have been a completely different musician who may never have distinguished himself among the tens of thousands of other rock musicians trying to get record contracts. He was, however, the perfect musician for the early 70's, who saw the authenticity and humanity of the 60's curdle into Nixonian conservatism and paranoia. Perhaps the zeitgeist in those years decided that it was better to conceal your true self rather than reveal it.

The Beatles shaped the Sixties, but Bowie was a formed by the Sixties, and probably due to that he had an enormous lifelong interest in occult and spiritualism that the generations immediately following him did not share. He was, rightly, a political icon for all sorts of reasons, but I doubt he had much real interest in politics. What makes Bowie particularly interesting, and also his greatest limitation, is his interest in the world's spiritual side. His songs did not have much in the way of human themes. Instead, he was interested in all things mystical, transcendent, out-of-body.

This partially meant that a lot of Bowie's songs were a load of crap. But it also meant that when Bowie was good, he was almost inevitably great. Again, when you compare the gender-bending overtly sexual Bowie to so much of the neutered, socially conscious indy rock of our generation, Bowie begins to seem like a miracle. Perhaps it's no more complex that Bowie understood metaphysics - that weird nexus of philosophy, religion, eroticism, and insanity. Our generation doesn't think much about metaphysics. We either take our spirituality so literally that we pile into megachurches; where we're fed literal readings of the Bible and worship God like He's a rockstar. Or we don't think about the next world at all. Instead, we think about nothing more than the world as our two eyes see it, and then we pack ourselves into stadiums where we worship rockstars like Gods.

It shouldn't be too surprising that he spent a few of his most productive years in Germany, the land of metaphysics. In Space Oddity, a seemingly rare place in his output where magician and musician become one, what are those bizarre guitar, electronic, and string harmonic sounds that become increasingly common as the song goes on? Are they the sounds of Major Tom's Death? Are they the sounds of the space shuttle blowing up? Are they the sounds of outer space? Or are they the sounds of some transfiguration among the heavenly bodies so mystical that we can't possibly describe them with human words?

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