“No interviews, no live shows, no explanations. Just the album.”
That’s been the official line from David Bowie’s reps ever since journalists started bombarding them with requests to be the first to interview the enigmatic singer following the Jan. 8 release of “Where Are We Now,” his first piece of new music in 10 years.
In 2004, following a minor heart attack, Bowie, an attention-seeking changeling if there ever was one, shocked everyone by stepping back from the spotlight he’s worked so hard for over a 46-year career. The only problem was that the spotlight remained, burning down on an empty stage as the singer walked around its edges, avoiding the gaze of the media and its endless thirst for information on his health, his music, his personal life.
But Bowie denied most requests, including involvement in a Bowie exhibit at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum later this month, and even reportedly turned down an offer to headline the 2012 Olympics. Yes, there was that awkward interview on Ellen, and over the years Bowie has showed up when he’s felt like it, whether it be with Arcade Fire, Scarlett Johansson or David Gilmour, and even for fun at the expense of Ricky Gervais. But in terms of his own music, the man that once released 12 albums in 10 years (1969 to 1979) remained in the shadows.
Then, without warning, and to the surprise of even his own people ("we were as shocked as everyone else," they told The Telegraph), we get a video for “Where Are We Now?” and the details of a new album, The Next Day, Bowie's first since 2003, out today.
“Where Are We Now?,” to top it off, reminisces about his time in Berlin, a period of superior output that many consider to be his golden years (1976–79). Imagine that: Bowie getting nostalgic about Bowie. We could hardly contain ourselves. But then, “No interviews, no live shows, no explanations. Just the album.”
Following that was another single, “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)," released in February with a video featuring Bowie and his doppelganger, Tilda Swinton, trying to live a completely domestic life while glamorous couples look on in envy. It was a not-so-subtle statement on the social media-obsessed world around him; the same world that demands platitudes from its celebrities, where thoughts on Bieber’s hamster, Bieber’s lack of a Grammy and Bieber’s "worst birthday" ever are news. But Bowie is a pre-Bieber celebrity, and his Twitter account hardly gives any insight into his personal life, stating clearly that it’s only for “general announcements and promotions.”
In other words, no explanations. Just the music.
It was shocking to hear nothing from Bowie, who from early on in his career learned how to manipulate the media to his advantage; the man who, in 1979, told a 19-year-old Cameron Crowe for an interview in Playboy, “Christ, everything is a media manipulation.”
But the truth is, Bowie doesn’t want his privacy. If he did, he wouldn’t be so private. He knows more than anyone that the public wants what it can’t have, so the less he says, the more we’ll talk, think and write, over-analyzing every little scrap he graciously throws us. This isn’t Bowie the recluse, finally coming out of hiding — this is Bowie, marketing genius.
All musicians, all artists, all celebrities, know this. When they pull away, we surge forward, like a crowd pushing toward the stage at a concert in hopes of getting a better look. We need to be pressed up against that guard rail as tightly as possible.
Toronto’s the Weeknd knows this. When Abel Tesfaye released House of Balloons in March 2011, only to then politely rebuff every media request (mine included), it only added to the mystique, which in turn added to his success.
But Tesfaye has a personal Twitter account, something he uses to write cryptic tweets that appear to be revealing on the surface, but end up being just that: surface. They tell us as little about him so as to keep us interested; enough to crash his website, twice, downloading his followup mixtapes, Thursday and Echoes of Silence.
D’Angelo also knows this, although he seemed to learn it the hard way. Here’s an artist who, after releasing two critically acclaimed neo soul albums, 1995’s Brown Sugar and 2000’s Voodoo, seemed to genuinely want nothing more than to disappear, but whose fans just wouldn’t allow it. Now every bit of news about his comeback, no matter how mundane, is sacrosanct.
Every time his producer and collaborator Questlove has counted up to the completion of his album, from 97 per cent to 99 per cent to, possibly, 99.9 per cent, it becomes news and our anticipation grows accordingly.
If anything, the increased pressure to become a public figure and neo soul savior only pushed D’Angelo to become more private, but not with Bowie; Bowie’s always loved the attention. He was more likely biding his time, enjoying his family, yes, but also recording an album with longtime producer Tony Visconti, allowing his new façade of the sickly recluse to gestate, making his eventual emergence on his 66th birthday all the more spectacular. Could it have been part of the show all along?
Bowie’s admitted many times he’s an actor first, a singer second, which shows in the diverse list of characters he’s played over his music career. First, there’s the shaggy-haired and innocent-looking folk singer, which begat Major Tom, the hedonist astronaut. Next came Ziggy Stardust, the androgynous Everyhuman with the lightning bolt on his face, the shock of red hair and the one-legged unitards, which lead to Aladdin Sane, literally a pun on “a lad insane.” The Thin White Duke followed, a sexually liberated sartorialist and emaciated, drug-dependent rock star. And that only brings us to the mid-'70s.
It’s quite possible that no other musician in history has gone through so many metamorphoses, physically and sonically, in an ongoing effort to remain at the centre of our collective gaze.
“The only thing that shocks now is an extreme,” he said in the same Playboy interview mentioned above. “Unless you do that, nobody will pay attention to you. Not for long. You have to hit them on the head.”
For his latest act, all Bowie had to do was step away for a while — it was the only shocking thing left to do.
Follow Jesse Kinos-Goodin on Twitter: @JesseKG