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Content Warning: this column deals with trauma, September 11th, 2001, and similar topics. All the heavy stuff is prologue to the column, so feel free to skip to the actual album review, starting with the fourth paragraph.
We are we are we are
What’s the difference between a timeless legacy and a dated representation of the times? How do we decide what’s worth focusing on when we look back? It sure seems like a random and arbitrarily decided distinction. Sure, some are clearer than others. It’s easy to give credit for era-defining albums or days that live in infamy. Less noteworthy things, like one-hit wonders, are usually revisited as a nostalgia trip, not because they’re still relevant, whatever that means. Relevancy is such a nebulous concept and one that varies so much from person to person. Because of that, this column is going to be a little more divided than usual, focusing first on what’s on my mind leading up to putting this month’s album on repeat before diving into the album itself.
Just a few days ago, we passed the 18th anniversary of the September 11th attacks in New York City. I’m not going to get into my personal connections and memories with the event here, as I think they’re much too complicated to have as a backdrop to a music column. But this year felt… different for me than it usually does. Yeah, every year I see a lot of “Never Forget” posts alongside edgy jokes belittling it, the usual internet discourse ranging from deeply personal to the shallowest callousness and every level of no/half/full-hearted messaging in between. I was surprised, though, to see a lot of people talking about how it’s been so long, why do we still make such a big deal out of it, that it’s no longer relevant enough to justify all this attention. And this year, I saw an elevated level of animosity, which is, frankly, what I’ve come to expect in 2019. Some using it as an example of true American sacrifice, the day we were shown just how at risk the life we had taken for granted was. Others using it as the starting point of the modern American imperial era kicked into effect by the Authorization For Use Of Military Force Against Terrorists bill and the Bush Doctrine. Projecting it as the event that jingoists and fascists use to justify their politics. And while I don’t disagree with any of that, per se, I think there’s something deeply personal missing from that dichotomy, a focus on what parts of the event are still relevant and necessary to include in our thoughts on that horrible day.
I’m sure it’s because I’m a New Yorker, but I don’t think enough people give space for the trauma that it caused in so many of us. Yes, it is more important than ever to discuss the politics of the weeks, months, and years after that, especially now that people born after that day are now old enough to go fight in the wars that spun out of it. I was extremely lucky not to lose anyone that day, but knew plenty of people that did. When we look at such a catastrophic event as that day, we too often forget that the people affected are still affected and walk around with that weight every single day. First responders dealing with the mental (and physical) damage from being a part of it. People who were harassed, abused, and worse just because they looked like the people who did this. Children who were forced to confront so many things about the world, prematurely, that Tuesday morning. So many people lost something that day, and even though it’s been 18 years, not everyone’s found it yet. We all need to remember the real people that these macroscopic events touch, the micro reasons why 18 years isn’t nearly enough for these events to no longer be considered… relevant.
So what does that have to do with David Bowie? Aside from him playing “Heroes” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” at the Concert For New York benefit, not much on it’s face, actually. I was stuck thinking about the kinds of legacies that are left behind and how much weight we should give facets of more complex legacies. Whenever I’m stuck in a loop in my own head, thinking about some complicated or challenging feelings, there’s almost always a Bowie record that helps me focus. I think it’s because he reinvented himself so many times. Bowie is always relevant because he was always relevant. In the late 80s and early 90s, he was in a critical slump and a lot of people counted him out after he was unable to match his success of his early and mid 80s albums. But with 1993’s Black Tie, White Noise, he reintroduced himself and kickstarted one of my favorite eras of his career, his electronic house/industrial phase. Fresh off of his tenure in the band Tin Machine and beginning a marriage, this album serves as not only a revamp of what a David Bowie record sounded like, but a goodbye to the Bowie everyone already knew. From “You’ve Been Around:”
The album has way more than just the lyrics to show the bridge between Bowie’s past and future. He considered it a blend of 60s pop melodies with 90s house music. Bowie brought back Nile Rodgers, his producer from Let’s Dance a decade prior, but made a conscious effort to distance himself from that sound. Bowie picks a few covers to include on this album, too, and those choices are very telling. He covers Morrisey’s 1992 track “You’re Gonna Need Someone On Your Side,” which itself was heavily influenced by Bowie’s glam rock era, not least of all because it featured Mick Ronson, Bowie’s guitarist from 1970 to 1973, most famously on Ziggy Stardust. Bowie covers the contemporary song inspired by his classic style, once again merging the past and the present. There’s a very 1993 version of Cream’s 1966 single “I Feel Free,” featuring Mick himself. This was their first collaboration in 20 years, but tragically, Ronson passed away from cancer only 24 days after the album’s release. The inevitability of moving forward is clear on the record, no matter how familiar it may seem on paper. From “Miracle Goodnight:”
Bowie, more so than any artist I listen to, always managed to stay relevant while staying familiar. He always sounded like Bowie, even when what that means is so hard to describe. His catalog serves as a long narrative, with twists, turns, and losses that I find really inspiring. Every few months I do a full listen of his discography, chronologically, and I have different takeaways every time. Sometimes I love the Berlin era most of all, sometimes his early work, this time his 90s stuff. It always helps me to get clarity on complex issues I have, knowing that it’s possible to consider the multitudes and learn more as you revisit the complexities. You don’t have to completely understand every phase and growth right away, whether it be from an artist’s work or your own traumas. Someone like Bowie, someone beautifully expressive and honest, helps to shed light on my darkest thoughts and keep me company in my loneliest memories.
It’s hard for me to imagine a time when people thought Bowie’s career was over. But like all timeless art, his time came again, and he was able to reinvent himself and cement his legacy as someone with countless aspects. As we look back through the art we love, the people we idolize, and the events that shaped us, it’s important to try to look at them with the nuance they deserve. It’s always more complicated than it seems on the surface and bullet points rarely capture the whole picture.