David Bowie changed the way we think about the self
As geniuses tend to do, he anticipated what was coming in the virtual world
It is obvious enough that David Bowie brought the techniques of the theatre to pop music. But he did something more profound than that: he brought the idea that lies behind theatre, not just into music, but into contemporary culture as a whole.
That idea is simply stated: character isn’t something you have, it is something you invent. The actor is a protean figure, a shapeshifter. And the better the actor, the more scary this figure becomes.
The great actors disturb something that is central to our existence - the idea of the self. By putting on and taking off selves, they make us question whether the self really exists at all. Bowie was disturbing because he took this idea to its most extreme conclusions.
If you go back to the world that Bowie was born into, the idea of “character” was enormously important to the way children were brought up. The crucial thing in the development of a child was to form a character. There was a phrase for this process - character-building. The character was like a house or even a fortress - it had to be constructed of strong and durable materials so that it could withstand the storms and earthquakes of life.
The idea was that children’s characters are soft like putty and that they must be formed and hardened. And once formed, that was it: you emerged into adulthood as a person of “good character”. After that, life was a maintenance job. You maintained your character by avoiding temptations. Under extreme stress - in the male ideal, the stress of the battlefield - your character emerged for public display. Otherwise, it stayed quiet.
In this world, shapeshifting was a bad thing. In mythology, you are turned from one thing into another as a punishment for offending the gods, as Artemis turns Actaeon into a stag for spying on her and has him ripped apart by hounds. In folk tales, it is ugly witches who turn princes into frogs. Men who turn into wolves are not nice. In Gothic novels, Dracula becoming a bat or Dr Jekyll becoming Mr Hyde is a hair-raising horror. And in both popular psychology and the movies, the idea of the “split personality”, of a character that becomes multiple, was associated with psychosis and murder: think Norman Bates.
And then you get Bowie, the Cracked Actor. The shock of that famous appearance on Top of the Pops in 1972 wasn’t just the visual weirdness or the playing with homosexuality. There was something deeper and more disturbing going on - the shapeshifter beaming into our living rooms. What he carried with him, though none of us could have identified it at the time, was the sense of character no longer being constructed but being deconstructed.
These creatures Bowie turned himself into were not, like good theatrical performances, coherent selves. They were the fragments of shattering personalities, characters on the edge of collapse or disappearance. Bowie was presenting, right there in the mainstream of pop culture, the notion that this thing we called the self is not fixed at all. It is, rather, multiple, malleable and above all fragile. It is all an act - never mind “I think therefore I am”, it is now “I perform therefore I am”. And what if the performance fails?
Of course Bowie didn’t invent any of this. James Joyce, for example, had given us, in Ulysses, an idea of the self as a stream of words and thoughts, raising the possibility that we are nothing but what is going through our heads. Artists and philosophers had long been worrying away at the idea that there might not be anything fixed about the self at all. But Bowie literally enacted this idea on the main stage, placing it front and centre in the consciousness of an entire generation.
The century of the selves
The 20th century has been called “the century of the self” but Bowie, perhaps more than any other single figure, made the 21st century the century of the selves. As geniuses tend to do, he anticipated what was coming - the virtual world in which we can have as many selves as we have the energy to invent and project.
But what may be most important about him is that he grasped this process, from the very start, as a deeply ambivalent one. On the one hand, it is liberating. It is good to know that we don’t arrive into adulthood with a character that defines us for the rest of our lives. The fixed roles that came with that idea were oppressive and limiting. But on the other hand, relentless self-reinvention is a dodgy business too. If we are to live in decent societies we need to be moored in ideas and beliefs, in families and communities, in memories and aspirations. And for all of these things we need to have a sense of self that doesn’t keep changing. If we are all shapeshifters, nothing has any shape at all.
This is why Bowie retains the power to disturb. He presented the breakup of the self as both exhilarating and terrifying. And we don’t yet know which of those possibilities is more real.