The media have rightly made a great deal of the sad death of David Bowie from cancer. He was a special pop singer and an unusual man, admired and loved by many people.
Speaking for myself, I was interested by much of the coverage on radio and television, and enjoyed articles about Bowie in this and other newspapers yesterday. Bowie’s demise was a major event which warranted extensive coverage.
But dare I say that the torrent of adulation in some quarters has been slightly overdone? Over the past couple of days we have been told countless times by some in the media that David Bowie was a visionary and a genius and a very great artist whose name will live for evermore.
Tears: Fans stand yesterday next to a tribute mural for Bowie in his birthplace of Brixton, South London
Isn’t it the case that in modern Britain the death of a statesman or great writer or brilliant Nobel Prize-winning scientist would have received one tenth of the reverential coverage accorded to David Bowie?
For me, the high-water mark of hyperbole came with an paean of praise by Tony Blair in The Times yesterday under the overblown headline: ‘Like nothing else we have ever seen.’ The piece was largely about Mr Blair himself, as is perhaps unsurprising in someone habitually so concerned with himself.
There were accounts of how the young Tony Blair – member of a student rock group at Oxford – attended a Bowie concert in the early 1970s, met him over the years several times, and later invited his idol to dinner at Chequers.
Tribute: A paean of praise by Tony Blair was largely about Mr Blair himself, as is perhaps unsurprising in someone habitually so concerned with himself
Oddly, in view of the extent of hero-worship, there is no mention of Bowie in Mr Blair’s autobiography, which runs to nearly 700 pages. But Tony is not one to be left out when politicians are lining up to praise one of the greatest geniuses who has ever lived.
My point is not directed against Bowie. Though I can’t claim to have followed his example by dying my hair in my youth, or dressing in an androgynous way, or snorting vast quantities of cocaine, I can recall happily playing some of his songs in my car.
No, my grumble concerns the over-the-top tributes of politicians such as Tony Blair, and the excessive gushing by some broadcasters and a few newspapers, one of which produced a 12-page Bowie supplement in addition to massive coverage on its news pages.
The Second Coming would scarcely attract as much attention. I fear that the hysteria about a man who was, after all, a pop singer reflects a disturbing cultural narrowness. On this evidence, our national culture now equals pop culture, and politicians fall over one another to worship at its shrine.
So we have Eton and Oxford-educated David Cameron tweeting that Bowie was a ‘pop genius’. To judge by the records he chose when a guest on Desert Island Discs – all but one modern music – the Prime Minister has a pretty limited repertoire. Is he qualified to bandy about words such as ‘genius’?
Boris Johnson, a product of the same refined educational institutions, also took to twitterdom without fully engaging his mind. ‘No one in our age has better deserved to be called a genius.’ Really? What about the great Russian writer Solzhenitsyn, who died in 2008? Or James Watson, who discovered the structure of the DNA molecule?
‘Creative genius’: David Beckham posted a picture of David Bowie on Instagram, saying: ‘Rest in Peace STARMAN.’ It’s difficult to see the point of such a post unless it is to draw our attention to David Beckham
I’m inclined to be more forgiving of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who when interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme about a pow-wow of warring Anglican bishops in Canterbury was cornered on the subject of Bowie just minutes after the news first broke.
The Guardian included a 12-page tribute supplement
Nonetheless, he did rather over-egg the pudding by recalling how he had listened ‘to his songs endlessly in the Seventies particularly, and always relishing what he was, what he did’. Dr Welby has apparently forgotten Bowie’s industrial drug-taking and Olympian bed-hopping (both sexes).
Tony Blair’s vicar on earth, Alastair Campbell, pre-empted his former master’s fatuous article with a most revealing tweet. ‘Only two times I saw Tony Blair star-struck were when he met David Bowie at the Brits and Barbra Streisand in a make-up room. Star goes out. RIP.’
Doesn’t this it say it all? Tony Blair is only in awe of a couple of pop stars. Not the Queen or soldiers who had risked their lives in one of the several wars he involved them in, or great philosophers and writers who may have crossed his path. Just David Bowie and Barbra Streisand.
The fact is that our political leaders have become ambassadors for popular culture. Can you imagine any of them eulogising a classical composer or great painter (I don’t mean Tracey Emin) in similar terms?
I suppose we should be less put-out by the response to Bowie’s death from a multitude of singers and actors. You would expect the pop singer Toyah Willcox (who tweeted, ‘Never has there been such a genius,’) and Madonna and Ricky Gervais and other like-minded entertainers to extol one of their own.
Nor is it worth getting worked up by ex-footballer David Beckham, who posted a picture of David Bowie on Instagram, saying: ‘Rest in Peace STARMAN.’ It’s difficult to see the point of such a post unless it is to draw our attention to David Beckham. Alas, so many tributes – not least Tony Blair’s – seem calculated to show the admirer in the best possible light.
David Bowie sang and composed many memorable songs, and those songs mean a great deal to lots of people
Among broadcasters, the BBC went furthest over the top, with its website cheerily re-cycling tweets without comment or irony, and its reporters endlessly insisting that Bowie was a visionary and a genius.
I hope I won’t be thought mean-spirited if I mention two rather negative aspects about Bowie which have not been much remarked upon amid all the hero-worship. One is that in the 1970s he praised Fascism, and idiotically described Adolf Hitler as ‘one of the first rock stars’.
Souvenir copy: Yesterday’s Independent front page
Bowie later attributed these outbursts to mental instability brought on by drugs, and many will be happy to accept this. But when Tony Blair lauds Bowie’s political ‘integrity’, he is not giving us the complete picture.
My other niggle is that in taking vast quantities of drugs and having sex with almost anything that moved at one stage in his life, David Bowie may not have been the perfect role model for the young people who bought his records.
Some of these people, of course, are now the middle-aged cheerleaders who have been orchestrating the chorus of praise as, like Tony Blair, they mistily recall the Ziggy Stardust concerts which they attended in their youth. I wonder, by the way, what the young today make of all this nostalgic hoopla.
David Bowie sang and composed many memorable songs, and those songs mean a great deal to lots of people. But I suspect there are many others, possibly making up the silent majority, who wonder whether he was the astounding genius he is being cracked up to be. They may also be a bit bemused by the overkill.
Not very long ago our national broadcaster, the BBC, naturally reminded us of the importance of great artists and thinkers when they died, while politicians, however ignorant, paid obeisance to serious art. No longer.
My point is that we are witnessing a kind of narrowing of horizons as politicians and much of the media treat an admittedly feted pop star as though he deserves to be placed in the pantheon of the very great until the end of time.
If culture is only popular culture, and the likes of David Bowie the only national figures deemed worthy of our interest and esteem, we will find ourselves living in a barren world. It would be one without much choice, where we are told that what is ordinary is, in fact, the best.