New single by Bowie hits cultural know-it-alls for six
Unless you have spent the last week with your head in an insulated bucket you will be aware that David Bowie has released a new single.
The keening noise alone should have alerted you. Bald nincompoops of a certain age – noting the lyrics’ poignant allusions to the artist’s Berlin period – have been weeping as they share stories about their first encounters with the great man’s work.
Did I ever tell you how my mum brought me down to the Lisburn Road in 1974 to buy a copy of Ziggy Stardust? The record clicked on to the turntable and, as the strains of Five Years blared about the room, whole new vistas opened up to the young. Where are you going, young man? I’ve only just started.
With the best will in the world (something I can, somewhat uncharacteristically, muster in this context), nobody could call Where Are We Now? one of Bowie’s very greatest songs. The fragile delivery is enormously touching. The allusions to Berlin really do trigger a catch in the middle-aged throat. But the melody is just a little plodding.
There is, however, something genuinely startling about the song’s release: nobody seems to have known it was coming. In an era powered by hype this really is a remarkable development. When the news emerged on Tuesday morning – and the song immediately sprang up ready for download on iTunes – a thousand cultural know-it-alls grudgingly acknowledged they had been sideswiped.
Nobody claimed to have spotted Bowie entering a recording studio. No press releases foreshadowed the release. No PR wonks attended strategy meetings.
The fact that Bowie pulled off the surprise – an album will follow shortly – is impressive in itself. When, last summer, a fake Daniel Craig parachuted into the Olympic stadium with a fake Queen Elizabeth, a great many compliant windbags celebrated the organisers’ ability to keep the stunt a complete surprise. This was so much baloney. At a Skyfall press junket in April this writer heard the rumour chewed over at enormous length by a great many journalists. No confirmation ever came. But the story was in the air.
It is only fair to acknowledge that recording an album involves much less clatter and chatter than arranging for a monarch to be flung from a helicopter. Heck, the allied forces managed to keep the land invasion of an entire continent secret in 1944.
Still, we should be grateful that Bowie and his cohort achieved their clandestine release. The vulgar excess of promotion and hype that characterises contemporary popular culture has become increasingly suffocating over the last few decades.
Tens of millions of dollars are spent flogging each of the year’s big movie releases. Social media users (fools!) offer further promotional chatter for free. Downloading Where Are We Now? is, when set in this context, akin to finding the song beneath a tree while walking your dog. What’s this? Good Lord! It’s a new David Bowie single. Did I ever tell you about how my mum brought me… Boo hoo! Waaa!
Aside from being unspeakably vulgar, the ongoing orgy of promotion is often seriously counterproductive.
Consider Ridley Scott’s leaden Prometheus. In the year leading up to its release the confusing quasi-prequel to Alien managed to soak up more bandwidth than the entire US security apparatus.
Joseph Kennedy Sr famously said he knew it was time to get out of the stock market when he received tips from his shoeshine boy. Sod that. By the end of May my goldfish was expressing opinions on potential plot twists in Prometheus.
I may be imagining this but I have a memory of lifting the lavatory seat and encountering a teaser trailer playing beneath the murky water. Wake up in the middle of the night and you half-expected to find Michael Fassbender lurking at the bottom of your bed.
After all that hype the film would have needed to be a genuine masterpiece to repel disappointment. In the event Prometheus turned out to be a passably entertaining, weirdly confused melange of cod philosophy and unconvincing futurology. That year of corporate programming seemed like a terrible, terrible waste of energy. Remember the grim sense of anti-climax you felt on Millennium Eve? This was even worse. They promised us the world and then gave us a tolerable remake of Chariots of the Gods.
In contrast, how pleasant it is to consider the new Bowie single in this promotional vacuum. There is no great pressure to adore the record.
But hang on a moment. Am I completely overwhelmed by cynicism or is the non-promotion of Bowie’s single actually the greatest promotional gambit of the current age?
Some sinister mastermind has, perhaps, constructed a brilliant marketing structure from purest, unrefined nothing. You monsters!
Let’s just pretend that’s not the case. Shall we?