David Bowie read music
David Bowie's Top 100 Books : How smart do you have to be to understand pop music?
There are people who take pride in not reading books. Neil Young is one of them. Literature would only distract him from the music, the rock hippie once explained to a reporter for the "New Yorker". Not reading, that seemed like a salvation: As if Young's shamanistic guitar noise would be made impossible by letters. As if the seductive powers of books and sounds were mutually exclusive.
Neil Young knew what he was talking about. However, he only spoke about things "that he had experienced, felt or seen", the reporter Alec Wilkinson noticed. From the first acid experiments and concerts with his band Crazy Horse to electric mobility and old cars to the advantages of his new hiking boots. His indestructible spirit seemed trapped in a space of experience in which there was only himself. This corresponded to the dictum of Thelonius Monk, who said: A genius is someone who is mostly himself.
This is an ideal widely held in pop culture. English pop visionary Brian Eno said that artists specialize in “inventing worlds for themselves and thus making them relevant for people whose world has been taken from them”. But does that exclude outside influences? How does pop culture create awareness of what is valuable?
Perfect luck? "Read"
The question arises when considering the list of one hundred works that David Bowie claimed to have changed his life three years before his death. It's no secret that the pop star was an extremely well-read man. There are numerous photos in which he can be seen absorbed in reading. When asked by Vanity Fair what comes closest to his idea of perfect happiness, he replied tersely: "Read." For trips and longer stays, he had a mobile library constructed that held 1,500 books. How heavy these flight cases must have been that the lackeys of the musician, who suffered from fear of flying, heaved into trains and out again? Education matters.
The books on Bowie's top 100 list include Dante's “Inferno” novel classics such as “Madame Bovary”, “The Stranger”, “Lolita”, “The Great Gatsby” or “Unterwegs”, but also children's comics, youth magazines and cultural ones Treatises such as Greil Marcus' “Mystery Train”, Nik Cohn's history of the “Golden Age of Rock'n'Roll” or Peter Guralnick's standard work on soul. This selection only becomes interesting because of those out-of-the-way books that an intellectual hipster like Bowie must of course have read - Colin Wilson's wacky study on the “outsider” type, Saul Bellow's excessive beatnik novel “Herzog”, Don DeLillo's postmodern hallucination “White noise "Or the decades unpublished" Conspiracy of the Idiots "of the tragically failed John Kennedy Toole.
The compilation, although meticulously created, is a gimmick, like all the tiresome lists of the most important rock riffs, forgotten legends of rock history or songs for the deserted island. Bowie, the excessive reader who occasionally also reviewed what he had devoured, must not have imagined that he was leaving a literary guide. He didn't care about the canon.
But what is it about then? What makes British author John O'Connell produce an extremely knowledgeable annotated edition of Bowie's list of books? Is it more than a prominent bookworm? Who should be interested in a “must read” that was worth no more than a few sparse references to the editions that were in his possession to the author himself? Do you seriously believe that you can get an as yet undiscovered access to Bowie's oeuvre, "one of the most over-interpreted and discussed" in pop history ("The Guardian")? O'Connell hurries to load his “Bowie's books”, which are well worth reading, with the thesis that the titles listed had made the idol “who he was” (380 pages, Kiwi, translated by Tino Hanekamp, € 16). Tell me what you read and I will tell you who you are. That goes a bit far.
Art enables art
You have to overlook such exaggerations to get to the heart of the matter. Bowie's longtime companion and producer of some of his most important albums, Brian Eno, argued early on that works of art communicate with one another. This does not mean that a song like Laura Marling's recently published “Alexandra” corresponds with Leonard Cohen's “Alexandra Leaving” by reinterpreting the original in a feminist way. The fact that the Black Eyed Peas have just used Madonna's 80s hit “La Isla Bonita” is just within the scope of the usual incorporation. Rather, it is about a process whose effect often enough remains hidden from the artists. It can also be based on paintings, photos, films or novels. In Eno's case, it was Piet Mondrian's abstract paintings that seemed so simple to him that he thought: If it doesn't take more than a few geometric lines and colored surfaces to create art, then I can do it too. The synthesizer became his tool.
Bowie's books are also about this encouraging effect of art on other art. He, who had moved in his own inaccessible world, recognizable for everyone, was never happier than when he was able to leave it again through the door of a book. "The music is outside / It's happening outside" is how he described his need for immediacy in 1996 on the "Outside" album conceived with Eno.
He rarely talked about the influence books have had on his thinking. In this respect, literary books and music are very similar: "To let yourself fall into their world means to be surrounded by them". This is how Laurie Anderson, also a passionate reader, put it. There is no outside of one's own imagination. Just as there is no perception beyond sound. In terms of brain physiology, the musical and the written sense are mutually exclusive.
"Fever"? What Please?
This exclusivity of sound has served young people for generations as an escape room and echo chamber for a feeling that has lost its words. Ever since Little Richard's “Wop-bom-a-loowah, belah-bam-boom” and the Beatles' “Yeah Yeah Yeah”, emotions have been tied to something other than literary language, which has elementary effects on the way knowledge generated in pop culture, differentiating between important and unimportant, good from bad.
What was meant by Elvis ’“ Fever ”or the“ Hellfire ”that Jerry Lee Lewis sang about was not really clear to anyone. But the real radio DJs explained it to you. The right record dealers as well. The right people, who gathered with transistor radios at war memorials in the center of the village, gave it to you in sparse hints. The difference to classic learning processes was that the acquisition of knowledge merged with its result, the judgment. Knowing a band was synonymous with attitudes towards it, and the result of getting to know it was factored into the analysis.
That meant that this knowledge was not open to everyone. It was tied to codes, which amounted to a "conspiracy of idiots". At best, knowledge was backed up by stories, mostly biographical, or by the success story in the charts. Frank Zappa never tired of complaining that the music industry was going down when it hired "young hippies" to sell records to "young people". The old corporate executives had no idea what experimental pop music was being recorded under their roof, but they said that the market would show them ("when it sells, allright"). The young talent scouts and artist managers said they knew it beforehand (Zappa: "These young, hip guys are more conservative and more dangerous for the art form than the old crackers with their cigars ever were").
Identity arises from lack
The personalized transfer of information between those who feel the same, think the same and want the same thing has long since broken away from subcultural circles. Today, “friends” make recommendations to each other on social media, and influencers feed off of promoting their lifestyle and the products that shape it. Finding good, finding great, finding somehow has become so immune to external influences that the strong segmentation means that you are back at the point where the polarized pop culture of the 1960s was when it was said: “You did your thing and you hate everything else. "
The sentence comes from a conversation Enos had with his daughter Irial, in which the 72-year-old tried to explain to his child what he was doing as a musician and producer expert. "Re-Valuation" is the title of the interview - revaluation. Eno looks sadly into the presence of his daughter, who can no longer develop any awareness of something outside of her culture. Since all the music archives in the world are available to her, nothing is alien to her, none of her musical experiences are translated into a narrative and identity, unless her father donated it by giving his twins rare do-wop records from his studio on Saturdays Collection auditioned.
Even if the cultural explorer no longer exists, the “fundamental question” of pop, as cultural scientist Diedrich Diederichsen calls it, has always remained the same: “What kind of guy is he who is playing it, what does he look like, what does he want? "
Outside and inside
Eno offers an interesting distinction. For him, artists are either insiders or outsiders, depending on whether they move within or outside of their medium. Van Gogh would be a classic insider - an innovator, but tied to the tools of painting. Warhol, on the other hand, embodies the type of outsider who relates the arts that previously had little to do with each other.
This typology will remain valid beyond the digital revolution. Although postmodernism is now favoring the outsider for the first time, an insider like Neil Young, with his hermetic focus on rock instruments, represents a no less conclusive reaction.
In general, sectarian potentials always had their place in pop culture. They contain the populist strategies that allow authoritarian characters like Donald Trump - he is also a non-reader - to merge information and condemnation and to justify them with the jargon of the (disadvantaged) gutter. His hysterical political style was prepared by the aggressive gangsta rap of the nineties, which made it acceptable to verbally mow down opponents and pass it off as an act of resistance. In a tragic misunderstanding of their role, the aggro rappers do not want to understand that their verbal battles and their stupid pursuit of status symbols in the end only amount to leaving them as unfree as they were.
However, there is a stop line in front of populist demagogy. This is the playful character of pop experiences: You can dress according to certain patterns, master the gestures and vocabulary of a genre and cultivate its enemy images, but you could always do something different if you wanted. Whether popular music is left or right, moral or depraved, smart or uneducated, doesn't matter. What counts is how many points of contact there are. And if there are a hundred books.
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