January 18, 2013 6:38 pm

The survival of a master’s voice

Thinking differently is what makes David Bowie stand out in the noisy world that saw the collapse of HMV

Angry shoppers waved useless gift vouchers in the wintry air this week after the collapse into administration of the HMV chain of music stores. The vouchers were declared worthless by administrators – an act that was rich in symbolism. There is war on the physical world right now. The victims are illustrious: Jessops, Comet, Blockbuster. Things are under attack; stuff is uncool.

Those small pieces of paper, conscientiously tucked into Christmas stockings and now free of value, were collateral damage. Here is the big picture: films and music, the core art forms of postwar popular culture, are being vaporised into information highways and virtual clouds. All that was solid has melted into air, as the Voice of a true Master, Karl Marx, once uttered.

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Peter Aspden

There was also a climate of melancholy to be detected among the store’s rightly irritated customers. Every cloud has a bitter lining. “I think it is really sad that this is happening,” said one of the shoppers quoted in London’s Evening Standard. “You go to HMV to browse. It is sad that we’re losing that.”

But that reaction is already behind the times. We no longer have the time, or the inclination, to browse. (Online browsing doesn’t count: it is of the same order of human experience, by virtue of their common screen-based methodology, as paying a parking ticket or stocking up on toilet paper.) Real-life browsing takes a proper slice out of the day. And we are in too much of a hurry for that.

The simultaneous dissolving and acceleration of cultural consumption that marks the 21st century cannot help but have a disorienting effect. It makes it almost impossible to make considered, sober judgments on what we see and hear. Timelines are shrinking, distraction pulls us in several different directions before traction has properly occurred.

Some 10 days ago, everyone was talking about David Bowie’s new single “Where Are We Now?”. Today it is already forgotten. Truth be told, there have been a couple of stories informing us that the song went straight to number six in the UK singles chart. Number six! Tucked between those notables Calvin Harris (featuring Tinie Tempah) and Pitbull (featuring TJR). It is hardly the place for a pop legend, and augurs feebly for a significant cultural resurrection.

Bowie’s song is, at best, a quietly resonant slice of personal nostalgia. Self-consciously elegiac in tone, and released on his 66th birthday, it is a stylistic representation of what “oldness” might sound like from the tired lips of a faded pop star. He rambles around Berlin – scene of his most ambitious recorded triumphs – “walking the dead”, tentatively hopeful in the face of an uncertain future (“Fingers are crossed/Just in case”). The melody is drab and undistinctive, the art college video fashionably inert.

By far the most impressive aspect of the single’s release was the way it was handled. Bowie, who has always had insights of genius into the workings of popular culture’s infrastructure, imposed a Stasi-like cordon of security around the song. Collaborators were sworn to secrecy. “Where Are We Now?” came out of nowhere.

This was a move to send chills down the forever-accommodating spine of the public relations industry. It might have satirised Bowie’s naivety: “Let’s do nothing. And then just put it out.” But doing nothing and putting it out proved to be a spectacularly successful piece of contrarian strategy (already being analysed and reprocessed, surely, by business schools around the world).

There were stories on the BBC television news, saturation press coverage and a social network that was jolted into hyperaction by the absence of hype, a phenomenon that it barely understood. I imagine Bowie sitting in a glamorous abode, miles from freezing Berlin and elegiac ruminations, having a quiet smile to himself. Still ahead of the game, after all these years.

Bowie, like his fellow pop culture intellectual Brian Eno, gets contrarianism. He wore a dress on an album cover at a time when rock music’s testosterone levels were maxed out, he went black-and-white when all around was in garish polychrome, he travelled to Berlin when his contemporaries were only metaphorically chilling in Nashville and Nassau.

Thinking differently – oblique strategising, as Eno famously put it – has been the key to Bowie’s longevity and abiding relevance as an artist. And that will be the key skill in the disembodied cultural universe of the future. Dispassionate judgment, an art that requires knowledge of context, isolated thought, time for reflection, asks too much. Most people are happy to join in the buzz, be part of the scene.

In one way, through the speed and vibrancy of its dialogue and its capacity for mass engagement, popular culture has never been in better shape. But no one really believes that. There is too much noise around. To browse at HMV was to try to make sense of what was on offer to us. To handle a treasured slice of vinyl, or even a compact disc, was an act of affirmation. A search for a new original thinker. We need them more than ever. So where are they now?

peter.aspden@ft.com

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