Monday, February 5, 2018

we can be heroes

was recently asked some questions by a graduate student relating to a project to do with personae in music

>1. In Shock and Awe you wrote that glam rock believed fantasy would set you (the artist) free. Could you expand on that statement and perhaps highlight some of the artistic freedoms that fabrication can allow?

Well, the first freedom is freedom from your existing self – the hand that Life dealt you. At least, that is the idea – whether it can really work out is another matter. I am a bit of fatalist in this regard, myself – I don’t think people ever truly achieve a permanent escape from their personality as molded by environment / upbringing / the ingrained.  I think the “given” always returns in some form. But the running away from where you started out, the attempt to fashion a new identity, can make for a compelling artistic trajectory.

One way of looking at glam that I would have liked to bring out a little more sharply if I was doing the book again is in terms of heroism. In the book I cite the ideas of Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death (which ironically won the Pulitzer Prize after his death). But I didn’t actually read the whole book until after finishing Shock and Awe.  He sees human life in terms of a quest to be heroic – to escape insignificance, to defeat death. That could involve some kind of merger with a larger collective “immortality project” – nation, faith, political creed – for which you are willing to sacrifice yourself.  In our current consumer-spectator society there are reduced possibilities for this kind of participation in a collective project. A degraded version of the impulse persists in sport – following a team. Have you noticed how football fans slip into talking about their team in terms of “we” – e.g. “we’re doing really well this season”. Talking about achievements to which they’ve actually contributed nothing! Vicarious glory, triumph by proxy.  And then following certain bands is about that as well  – U2, or Muse, or Oasis (their whole shtick with songs like “Champagne Supernova” – hedonism as a kind of heroism. That’s a song you hear drunk men singing in the street after an “epic session’ – it aggrandizes what is perfectly average and nondescript).

The heroic impulse can also manifest in the individualistic pursuit of fame, or grand artistic achievement.  Bowie was obsessed with being a hero or a superman of some kind – the impulse surely preexisted but was expanded through his reading of Nietzsche. I think this was very much bound up with his great anxiety about death. But it also came from that elitist disdain, felt keenly by over-bright adolescents the world over, for the tawdry banality of everyday life.  (“Life on Mars?” is really Bowie speaking from the heart through the mousy-haired girl).  “There must be something more exciting and grand and dynamic than this!” So Bowie basically turned his whole life into a public drama, cast himself in a series of roles using the media and record industry as his stage.  Putting himself through all kinds of turmoil and tests for the sake of artistic stimulation, and to cut a compelling figure.

The thematic of heroism crops up in later Bowie-influenced neo-glam moments – the first New Romantic nightspot is called Club for Heroes. Then you have Adam Ant with his wardrobe of heroic (or anti-heroic) archetypes – pirates, highwaymen, cowboys and Indians.  If you can’t actually be a hero - you can dress up as one.

So basically fantasy is an escape from boredom, from the flatness and dullness of real life and one’s real self. You make up a story in which you are the dramatic lead. Turn life into an adventure. 

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