Personally, I’m incapable of living up to Dalrymple’s level of intellectual seriousness and total aversion to pop culture. I come fairly close, listening to pop music or watching televised fiction on only rare occasions. But I’m not quite as immune as he.
I do still like a couple of David Bowie songs and found him about as dignified and elegant as modern pop entertainers ever get (not exactly a high bar), mostly due to what seemed to be a natural outward restraint in speech and gesture. Dalrymple, on the other hand, was not a fan:
The immense coverage of David Bowie’s death in The Guardian did not entirely convince me of his genius, except for self-exhibition. There, it is true, he excelled. In his public appearance he seemed to appeal to our culture’s magpie instinct for the militantly meretricious. I listened to a little of his music on the Internet and suffice it to say that I was not transported by it.
What do you think? To what extent do you still partake of pop culture? Are there instances of it you think he might like?
Share your thoughts in the comments section, as I am genuinely curious about Dalrymple’s (other) readers.
No doubt much nonsense and hyperbolic praise has been written about Bowie, but Dalrymple has in a number of significant respects, missed the point. The fact he doesn’t really understand Bowie’s music suggests that he shouldn’t have written about it, and he does so very superficially. By way of example: the lyrics he quotes, which are from the song “Fashion”, are banal – they’re supposed to be, it’s part of what the song is saying about fashion. And song lyrics should not be judged as poetry. Even the worst doggerel can be transformed by being sung. Many of Schubert’s songs are of very poor poetry, but are wonderful songs.
I have to agree with TD on this one. I’ve never understood the fascination with Bowie. Frankly, what I’ve heard of his music is horrible (he couldn’t sing!) and his persona was very creepy. Granted he may have had a catchy song or two in his repertoire that I haven’t heard, but then the old maxim of a blind hog finding a truffle may apply in those instances. I find that many pop artists today seem to follow this maxim. You get enough pop singers and enough songs and there is sure to be some fleeting fun in there somewhere. There might be a few signals in all the noise. Perhaps, it can all be reduced to Bayesian statistics? I don’t know. I’m just glad we don’t have to purchase entire albums anymore.
And I should also say that Dalrymple fails to distinguish between Bowie the person and his songs. It’s a distinction of which he’s well aware, see: his recent essay on Dylan Thomas where he notes that as a person Thomas was somewhat deficient, but he was a poet of genius. Unfortunately, he muddles together Bowie as he sees him, or perhaps as he’s written about, and his music. This also suggests that the subject is one that he ought to have left alone.
I’m with TD on this one. Bowie was an attention seeker who never grew out of writing teenage poetry; his deification says less about the quality of his art than the sincere desire of modern bien-pensants to appear deep without doing any of the difficult thinking required to actually achieve depth.
Every time the good doctor writes about football (aka soccer), he explains that he doesn’t follow it with the enthusiasm of his youth–but then he gives an intelligent assessment of what he sees, whether it’s the boorishness of the fans or the tattoos on the players. I suspect that he follows sports more than he cares to admit, and that he probably wants to avoid any association with sport fanatics who live and die by the box scores.
I’ve reached middle age myself now, and have realized that much of the music of my youth I liked because it sounded good, and that what the singers were saying was like a parking lot puddle: shallow but messy. It’s the mark of an old person to pay attention to lyrics, which I do now. I don’t think we can completely avoid pop culture, but we can at least be aware of it and know that in a century, when the last person who saw David Bowie in concert has died, that his music will likely have only a fraction of the following that J.S. Bach has.
Are you suggesting that there can be no merit or proper pleasure derived from listening to anything less than Bach? That seems to be setting the bar impossibly high. The fact is, one can listen to Bowie and Bach while recognising that the former never produced a work as enduring as the B Minor Mass (which from recollection, was not performed until after the death of the last person who knew Bach) but why should that matter? Is one to avoid playwrights who don’t equal Shakespeare, or painters who are no Rembrandts etc? I’m afraid I derive pleasure from a great many things, not all of which are of equivalent merit, and from what I can tell, most other people do too. Great art tends to endure, (though save in a few cases, its popularity can rise and fall) but because something is not great art, or one does not like it, does that mean it’s thereby worthless. Seriously, does anyone actually believe that?
TD misspells the word ‘principal’ twice in his article. Clearly he needs some education.
While I found and still find some of Bowie’s work amazing; some of it music, some of it his kitschy persona’s, some of it his film appearances (a funny, brief, but part in an 80’s movie called ‘Into the Night’ especially), I have to say that I find something sad in the mass outpourings of emotion over “icons” of popular culture, above and beyond the sadness of the passing of the figures themselves.
I think this has to do ultimately with a general change in perspective as I have matured in my time on earth of what I consider things of value to what makes human life human. It’s not veneration or appreciation of people who share their crafts with the world and happen to become popular because of it per se’ that I find distasteful and lamentable. It’s the disproportionate amount of energy, time, and resources that are poured into the enterprise of adulation that I find more and more repugnant as I grow older..on principle. Religious observances of deities have nothing on the spectacles of the worship that is lavished on people who do what the human family has always been known to do throughout its history: sing songs, dance, tell stories. And yes, while bards, poets, jesters, musicians, dramatists, playwrights, etc. have always had a few who rose to such prominence that phenomena akin to worship may have accompanied them during their lifetimes, or moreso following their deaths, it just strikes me as strange sometimes, to see so many grown assed, men and women act like they’ve lost a reason for living. I say “sometimes”, because the sad truth I realize is that even though most of the people in the earth mourning over his passing knew not one iota of Mr. Bowie firsthand, that is to say, personally, nevertheless, for them, he was a loci of some meaning in their lives, similar to the funny or charming family relative who always had that song to sing or joke to tell; that sometimes made one feel better or forget their troubles momentarily. This doesn’t seem too odd in proper proportions.
In the final analysis, perhaps that’s what the extreme mass gushing points to: Religious worship, myths, attempting to have relationships vicarious or directly, with deities that give one reasons for living, far from going away, in the post-Christian, Western milieu, has only changed in its objects.
Maybe an inverse equation is to be expected in decadent, post-religious societies in the traditional sense; the less of one religion, the more of another. That is, the less of religion in a traditional sense, the more of it in novel or disposable-cultural senses. The difference here being that when the crops fail or a devastating earthquake hits, for all the adulation and mourning, I suspect very few to none will seek the aid of Mr. Bowie, beloved as he might have been. It seems human beings are worshipping beings who can never or will never en masse anyway, help it. The existential problem however is that when one invests all of their worship energy to objects that are by definition not transcendent, or appropriate for truly province a reason for being i.e. “broken cisterns that can hold no water”, a dehumanization and degrading of faculties seems to follow. This tendency of the modern era seems to be ferociously enabled and facilitated by the zeitgeist.
What exposes to me, the futility and vanity of it all can be posed in another scenario question: How many of those going about in mourning for Bowie today will have their primary desire be on their deathbeds, rather than seeing family or friends-to have his picture or one of his albums placed in heir hands? Same goes for diplomas or trophies. We all know what is truly of value in life deep down. But every now and then, I guess we like to believe its in other things. I think that’s what an adolescent period used to be for. Strange to see so many adolescents in perpetuity though.
A lot of good comments. My position is probably closest to Josef’s, and also Colin’s. I see nothing wrong with a little frivolity. Most of us would find it an unbearably serious life if we limited our attention to only true artists and philosophers and so forth. What’s most important is proportion and perspective, and the hagiography of what are basically only decent craftsmen is absurd and reveals serious deficiencies in modern culture.
And here are some of the lyrics from a song by Umm Kulthum, described by TD as a great popular singer:
“Oh love that stretched my insomnia
Oh traveling abroad with my heart
Life is going to make fun of us and she will laugh
So come on! Come on, I love you now more than ever”
Admittedly, they may have lost something in translation from the Arabic, but to me, such lyrics sound about as banal as any popular love song, and quite a few “art” songs too. Of course, when they’re sung, the affect might be entirely different. There are really very limited inferences one can make when quoting out of context.
While I admit that David Bowie certainly isn’t the worst manifestation of contemporary pop culture, I find that the praises he now receive are exaggerated; they are not in proportion with his talent and they resemble an infantile idolatry that seems to me ridiculous.
I certainly do not despise people who enjoy listening to David Bowie. But sometimes I feel that I am myself despised and ridiculed by “fans” of pop culture for stating that I find (for example) Mozart esthetically superior to (for example) The Beatles. Especially among people of my age (I am 27) there are very few who can appreciate classical music or are acquainted with it. There seems to be a kind of anti-elitist-elitism.
I recall another essay by Dalrymple (‘Hitching to Gomorrah’, New English Review), where he meets a young couple on their way to a reggae festival:
“When I picked the couple up, I was playing Brahms’ marvellous string sextet on my CD player, a work I love. I asked the young man Aimez-vous Brahms? – a question not only about the composer, but an ironic (as I supposed) reference to the title of a famous novel by Françoise Sagan. He neither caught the literary reference nor did he know anything of Brahms. ‘I don’t know much about him,’ he said. In fact, I am not sure that he had ever heard of him. I was deeply discomfited, though I did and said nothing to show it. It is, after all, my generation’s fault if decent and intelligent young European men (and I was sure that he was a decent and intelligent young man) identify more with Jamaican culture than with European.”
This is exactly my experience. My father was taught in school about the works of the great classical composers. My generation is for the most part (unless they actively seek to enlighten themselves) completely ignorant about classical music. Having experienced the beauty of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Chopin, etc., I think it’s a shame to act as if it has no more value than the latest pop songs.
I suspect there is nothing in the way of pop music that TD would like. Pop’s attraction is that it is ‘easy’ and some classical and jazz types only like ‘difficult’. For them, listening to pop is like trying to interest a Nabokov reader in The Famous Five.
If I had to suggest he try something it would have to be something melodious and played on traditional instruments rather than noisy electric guitars and unnatural-sounding synthesizers. Maybe something clever, quiet and tuneful by Elvis Costello; ‘Favourite Hour’, perhaps. Or maybe ‘End of the Movie’ by Stornoway.
I’d love to read TD’s thoughts on Bob Dylan. I think that if you wanted to find a figure in Anglo-American popular music whose work is most likely (in many ways it already has) to enter the the upper echelons of high culture it is Dylan’s.
Bowie was everything so-called moralists like TD should admire: and industrious thinker who maximized his talent potential (here’s his favorite books list http://electricliterature.com/david-bowies-100-favorite-books/). TD’s screeds on pop culture always end up defending one thing: TD’s self-assessed superiority to the unwashed masses. He’d fit in nicely with Republicans in the U.S: guys born wealthy who think they amassed their wealth all by themselves. Never heard of Brahms? You must have ignorantly ignored, via drugs or rock-n-roll, your inborn drive to investigate Brahms.
Your comment reminds me of Harvey Mansfield’s remark that “we find it easier to change our opinions and even to reform our morals than to admit to having bad taste.”
You argue that Dalrymple’s esthetic judgement arises out of his disdain for ordinary people, which you describe as his “self-assessed superiority to the unwashed masses.” From reading most of his books, he does not seem to me someone who cares much about social distinction. But, apparently, you do.
If Dalrymple ever talks about the aesthetic value of Tupac, I will stand corrected.
I wouldn’t hold your breath. The man has standards and doesn’t share your downward cultural aspiration.
I’m sure the adulation for Bowie is way out of proportion however I do like some of his songs. One song that I use to hear on the radio from time to time and thought it was rather average but recently discovered a live version that I rather like is this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o_cHvtPB2dY
“So long as we’re together, the rest can go to hell” hmm quite, not a sentiment I approve of but can’t deny that it seems appropriate enough in the context.
Something else of note is the song Heroes. That monotonous grungy backing track that thousands have emulated but utterly failed to achieve what Bowie miraculously did, a rather catchy song.
Ashes To Ashes is a favourite of mine, the lyrics are no doubt silly though I do like the line that goes “I’ve never done good things, I’ve never done bad things… I’ve never done anything, out of the blue”
I agree about Heroes. I think it is a legitimately great song. His best in my opinion.
Regarding lyrics (really song) vs poetry, I think this scene https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=fFtssl7u7lE pretty much sums up the situation. Had Ewan McGregor’s character (a ‘poet’) started to recite the most profound poetry it, for most people anyway, would not have had nearly as much impact as the moderately good song that he actually sings.
Funnily enough, just watching it now, this https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=OeSwSYmipqo kind of addresses the theme “silly love songs”… oh, and a rather lame nod to Heroes.