Bowie and the Beeb [2016]

The BBC played a role in making David Bowie’s world, our world. There needs to be a metric other than that of viewing figures and clicks, and for it to be calibrated as such in regards to funding.

John Sheil
21 January 2016

'Bowieland' Flickr/Matt M. Some rights reserved

The death of David Bowie was felt thoroughly on all media platforms, pub playlists, shopping centres and IRL conversations in the last week or so. It was a moment of ‘shared time’, where social networks are occupied by the same thing. His music was ecstatic; we can only offer our hands in silent communion to him, ‘up here [I’m in] in heaven’. It was no real hubris for him to say on his last advance single, ‘Lazarus’, that ‘now everybody knows my name.’ 

Strange then that Bowie can still be understood as vaguely intimate with the BBC. It would be hard to imagine such an androgynous glam-rocker being coupled with the Corporation as it is today. 

Bowie performed several times on BBC over the course of his career; the first session came on radio, 24th December 1967. Some of these were released in 2000 as ‘Bowie at the Beeb’, including the sessions from 1968 – 1972. The use of the colloquial shorthand suggests a familial bond between the BBC and Bowie, reflecting the symbiosis between BBC and popular culture that was strong at that particular historical juncture. 

Indeed the BBC were there for Bowie at the first: in the spluttering, grainy footage wherein the typical bespectacled patrician interviews a 17-year-old smirking elfin prankster, none other than Bowie himself, co-founder of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men. 

Much of British pop music’s heritage can find moments like this where a star already has an early relationship with the public service broadcaster. 

It gave his first Top of the Pops performance of ‘Starman’ in 1972, which introduced him to a far wider audience. The stiff-lipped Briton’s question ‘Is it a boy or a girl?’ later given life in 1974’s ‘Rebel Rebel’: ‘you’ve got your mother in a whirl / she’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl.’ 

Can one seriously imagine an anthem such as this, made in the current historical moment and residing in the collective unconscious of early morning mumblings at the fridge door, on the radios of passing cars, and in the most ecstatic minutes lying on your bed listening to it for the first time? 

The moment of Bowie’s death brilliantly threw this into sharp contrast. As alluded to by a perplexed Lorde, everyone seemed to be labouring under the illusion that they themselves were the only ones who could truly understand the depth of Bowie’s music; because of his weirdness and uniqueness, this niche was known only to them. 

But it turns out that the depths of this niche were densely populated, by, well, pretty much everyone. It was precisely this privatized delusion that was given lie to upon his death. We remembered it was possible to be considered ‘weird’, and for it to also be coincident with notions of public and, crucially, Britishness. 

Bowie embodied a vicarious joy of what we saw as the possibility for what we could be, and we applauded him for pushing at the boundaries of what is considered possible and at the possibilities of realism. Bowie’s favourite authors were ruthless satirists of reality: W.S. Burroughs and J.G. Ballard, astronauts of the unimaginable, Bowie was at home with them. We want to get away from ourselves sometimes. 

The final pulse of light from Bowie’s (black)star allowed us to glimpse at some possibilities for the BBC. Perhaps it is necessary to resist the austere rubric of value-for-money. For there are many ways to interpret its editorial guidelines of what ‘our audiences would reasonably expect to hear’. Herein there is the ever-present danger of ceding too much to the already safe, and for an inclination in its commissioning towards a perceived ‘reasonable’ middle. Hence the continued commissions of programs like The Voice, with its relentless focus on the bildungsroman rags-to-riches Self, and its fairly reliable viewing numbers. 

But to shield itself behind such a creed means the BBC can never take any Bowie-like leaps into the unknown. Airing Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky’s films at 9pm on a Friday night — which, simultaneous to airing ‘Starman’, a song about the coming of youth’s saviour in extraterrestrial form,  it was wont to do — would be decried as elitist, out-of-touch snobbery. Of course, no audience could reasonably have expected Starman.

The BBC and Bowie do not have a cause-and-effect relationship, and the bedrocks of British pop are substantially weaker now, over and above the BBC’s influence. What the example of Bowie highlights is the absolute imperative for a metric other than that of viewing figures and clicks, and for this to be calibrated as such in regards to funding. 

Bowie was able to produce weird sounds and visions that took us out of ourselves, that pointed away from the self, and specifically that were not in deference to a grey, moribund reality of what is considered realist: zombie anthems of the ‘strong economy’ and calls to close the border, all backed up by spreadsheets and metadata of viewing habits. Bowie was a relentless modernist, a purveyor of the new who took the most vivid and electric aesthetics regarding music, musicals, theatre, and gender and made them popular and funny. He would have deigned to even describe them as such, he dismissed claims he was outrageous with a cattish shrug.

To me this is his last great gift, he couldn’t give everything away but he did give us an idea of what it would mean to be popular, accessible and weird, angelic and liberated. The infrastructure of a public service broadcaster such as the BBC had a role in making David Bowie’s world, our world. This is the light by which it could navigate its future.

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