Something more than David Bowie died this week
Why has David Bowie’s death affected so many people so deeply?
It goes much deeper than the pro-forma grief athleticism which the internet does so much to encourage. Yes, we can easily find examples of people going too far in their vicarious grief – often with extremely awkward effect:
But there is also something more than just anonymous people assuming a hysterical degree of mourning more appropriate for the passing of family members and close friends.
Neil Davenport attempts to draw out this undefined sense of loss in a piece in Spiked magazine entitled “Bowie and the shrinking sense of possibility”.
The piece begins by pointing out that while Bowie’s success was far from assured in the early years, it was made more likely by the greater sense of freedom and possibility which reigned in the early post-war decades, from the 1960s to the 1980s.
Davenport points out:
It’s worth remembering that Bowie slogged on the margins for ages, in two-bit bands, recording very minor songs, before finally finding his voice. Back then, British society created a kind of free space in which young people who were willing to take the unpredictable route of cultural experimentation could do so.
This should give some small measure of hope and a reminder to many of us toiling away in relative obscurity – be it in the arts or elsewhere – that success is rarely instant, and the lasting success we savour the most almost always requires a supreme degree of effort to be ploughed in to our endeavours before any results are seen.
But unfortunately, many aspects of our contemporary society conspire against encouraging this personal risk-taking and reinvention, as Davenport goes on to explain:
Today, in obsessively trying to ‘support’ and mollycoddle young people, society unwittingly robs them of the independence, resilience and drive that Bowie showed in his graft and in his shift from being a nobody to a zeitgeist-changing genius.
Where Bowie encapsulated a genuine sense of freedom and possibility, of total and frequent reinvention, today’s young people find themselves living in an era that discourages risk-taking, puts off adulthood, and erects official scaffolding around their lives. Young people have internalised a culture of anti-freedom.
We can see this in its most extreme form in the desire of some Western-born youths to join the death cult of ISIS, who seem to think that a repressive Caliphate which does all their thinking for them is a really great idea. We see it on university campuses, where student leaders make hectoring demands for Safe Spaces and ban controversial speakers, songs, newspapers or comedians. We see it with the daily emergence of yet another moronic petition calling for someone or something to be banned or punished for daring to ‘offend’ others. For all the celebrations of Bowie’s achievements, what he represented is actually in very short supply today. His death should serve as a reminder, or rather a wake-up call, of some of the backward social changes of the past 20 years.
Who would have thought that calls to outlaw clapping and booing, tearful temper tantrums about dress codes, stifling ideas by labelling them ‘problematic’, the insistence on safe spaces and mandatory sexual consent workshops for students would have such a repressive, suffocating effect on our society?
That’s not to say that there is no great new talent emerging seven decades after the birth of David Bowie – clearly there is. But time and again, we see the biggest acts and pop stars of today are more eager to ostentatiously embrace prevailing social values as an act of public virtue-signalling rather than court controversy by cutting across today’s strictly policed social norms.
Lady Gaga took no risk when she sang “I’m on the right track baby, I was born this way” – indeed it opened the door to stadiums full of even more lucrative fans. That’s not to say that she was wrong to do so; Lady Gaga’s advocacy of gay rights is laudable. But how often do you see an emerging pop star court real controversy or confound society’s expectations these days? You can blame some of this on commercialisation, sure, but not all of it. Something deeper is at work.
When emerging artists see ordinary people shamed and ostracised for saying the “wrong” thing or even just adopting the wrong tone on social media, how many will have the courage to incorporate anything truly daring or potentially “offensive” in their acts, or create spontaneously from the heart without first processing everything through the paranoid filter of societal acceptability?
No, trigger warnings and safe spaces are not directly to blame for the X Factor or One Direction. But all of these unsavoury phenomena – and the societal trends which create them – are indelibly linked.
Why, then, has this particular death hit many of us so hard? Perhaps because deep down, we realise that we have lost something more rare and precious even than David Bowie – the possibility of ever producing another like him.
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