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David Bowie is dumb . . .

Brooks Smith | Thursday, November 11, 2010

I’ve been lying to myself about it for a long time, but I can’t deny it any longer: David Bowie is a terrible singer, a terrible songwriter and a terrible musician. I tried to nod along with the critical consensus that this ridiculous poser is some sort of genius of 20th century rock, but the more of his music I heard and the more of his personal life and professional decisions I learned about, the more I thought he was an overinflated jerk.

For instance, his decision to work with Brian Eno on a couple albums. “Well that’s all well and good,” you may say, “I don’t know much about that Eno fellow after all.” Basically, Brian Eno is the producer you call when you are a pretentious wanker and want to “art up” your music to give it some semblance of lasting significance. Other artists who have worked with Eno in the past: well-known pretentious wankers U2 and Coldplay, and solo pretentious wanker David Byrne (whose pretentious wankerdom was reined in by the earthy grooves and commitment to pop of his breakthrough band, Talking Heads).

As you might have predicted, Eno’s influence on Bowie led him to make two of his worst records, “Low” and “Heroes.” These albums have become recognized as two of the biggest scams in rock history: in an era of two-sided LPs, only the first side of “Low” or “Heroes” contained “rock songs;” the second side was entirely padded with instrumental filler. By writing enough for one album and mixing a diluted concoction of “rock” and instrumental filler on both of these albums, Eno and Bowie sold a single album for the price of two.

Even more troubling was his association with the glam rock scene of the early 1970s, which I would liken to the hair metal craze of the 1980s in terms of lasting artistic value (to say nothing of fashion sense). The unfortunate foregrounding of style over substance in a sub-Warholian attempt at pop subversion was the primary characteristic of most glam rockers, and Bowie was no exception: he happily painted his face with glitter in odd and inadvisable ways in order to attract attention to his product while diverting public discussion from the quality of his product to the quantity of his makeup.

Let me be very clear on one point: Bowie’s flirtations with androgyny and bisexuality are not to be deprecated for their stylish glamorization of alternative sexualities, an important step in mainstream acceptance of the LGBTQ community even if Bowie was merely hauling to the surface a hitherto merely implied tradition in rock and roll (among its honorable precedents, the immortal Little Richard and the revolutionary Velvet Underground) rather than making a great break with history. What irritated was the unmistakable stench of commercial calculation about his brazen appropriation of elements of gay culture — his decidedly non-altruistic motives for sparking this revolution in mainstream acceptance.

Those two periods — glam-rock poser and art-rock poseur — cover most of his ‘golden boy’ period when he could do no wrong. After that he moved to some fairly dreadful disco simulations and has since spent his career misguidedly attempting to incorporate the various strains of dance and club music of the 80s and 90s into his music, which his defenders call artistic evolution and I call commercial desperation. He had lost his touch for the zeitgeist, and he would never regain it, fortunately enough for the survival of honest rock and roll unmediated by artistic pretensions.

I can’t think of another icon on Bowie’s level who recorded so few indelible tracks (perhaps 1-2) and so many dispensable competent simulations of “pure pop” (as distinguished from actual pure pop). Maybe Elton John, who never got pretentious about the honorable functionality of his music no matter if his lyricist, did. Even properly located in the sizeable pantheon of the mildly overrated “classic rock” stars (Stones, Led, Dylan) Bowie is a cut below the rest, musically and thematically. His real genius was for a pompous theatrical flair that had little to do with rock and roll and everything to do with self-promotion.

None of this is to disparage the many intelligent, informed and well-meaning people who have found happiness in Bowie’s music, of course. But popular consensus is no fit barometer of musical quality, not even among the intelligent, informed and well-meaning. After all, many of the people fitting that description also fall into Coldplay’s fan base. Which speaks not to the gullibility of the intelligent (a well-known quantity), but to the targeted savviness of both artists’ self-promotion. Pretension is nothing new in pop music, but at least the Killers know bad poetry goes down a little easier with over-the-top ear-candy hooks. And at least the irritating country-arena rockers Kings of Leon are straightforward about their sexuality.

Brooks Smith is a senior. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.