January 16, 2016

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I accept, of course, that the lyrics of songs are not to be compared to pure poetry, and that their function is different. All the same, the principle characteristic of the lines above is their banality and not their genius. Moreover, when I looked up more of his lyrics, I did not find any that were of a much higher or deeper quality. Nobody should be judged by his worst work (only a very mediocre writer, said Somerset Maugham, is always at his best), but the principle characteristic of Bowie’s lyrics seemed to me their appeal to people whose idea of human suffering is the natural consequence of their own self-indulgence. And this is now a mass phenomenon. We live in societies in which an unprecedented proportion of the total of suffering is self-inflicted.

It is true that any artistic production that is popular to the extent that David Bowie’s was or is popular is significant. A book that sells 100,000,000 copies tells us something important, whatever its quality or content. The anecdotes of people who met Bowie that The Guardian printed were revelatory in their extravagance: Like any girl, I”€™d like to touch him, wherever one went with him there was always a seismic shift, space and time changed. Golly! This is the kind of abjection that Hitler was once offered. One is tempted to say that they are the words of natural, or at least willing, slaves who seek to dissolve their selves and forego their will for that of some other person.

An interesting question (interesting to me, that is) is why a newspaper directed at the most highly educated and intellectual portion of a large population should devote so much space to the posthumous adulation of such a person as David Bowie, and why his activity should be treated with such breathlessly awed veneration. Was it sincere? Was it insincere? Is it worse if it was sincere than if it was insincere? On this difficult question, I cannot quite make up my mind.

I suspect, however, than in the extravagance of the coverage there was an element of flattery of the popular taste, that is to say a willing and dishonest suspension of judgment. You can criticize authorities all you like, but when it comes to criticizing masses of ordinary people”€”there the critical faculty must halt.

If you want to hear a genuinely great popular singer, listen to Umm Kulthum”€”whose funeral, incidentally, was attended by 4 million people.


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