A maelstrom of loss swirled around, yet its winds were incapable of evaporating the sadness that saturated status updates on social media. Grief unifies, but in doing so makes such a day weigh heavy. The following morning, tabloid newspapers emblazoned the same garish image of the deceased across their front pages, whilst the broadsheets opted for more respectful, sophisticated tributes.
The news of David Bowie’s death was gut-wrenchingly familiar to Michael Jackson fans.
Michael had been a great admirer of Bowie’s, and had known him most of his life. There is a picture of the pair together during the Jackson 5 years, at a party the Jackson family had thrown for Al Green; as well as pictures of the two of the two chatting backstage during Bowie’s 1983 Serious Moonlight tour, with Michael dressed in his Sergeant Pepper garb.
The concept of creating an alter ego and the engendering of enigma – with Michael’s adoption of Sergeant Pepper regalia being an example of this – was something Bowie had been the vanguard for. Bowie pirouetted through myriad identities and musical genres which, as well as enthralling, also discombobulated his audience: who was he?
It is the same principle behind why esteemed actors attempt to keep their true personas a secret by rarely giving interviews: should the audience begin to intuit who they are, it becomes that much more difficult to convince the spectators of any fictitious character they might assume for a role. Said actors need to be as much of a blank slate as possible in order to successfully transform.
And should the audience begin to imagine you as one thing, the switching to an alter-ego has the added benefit of tripping up the expectations upon the embarking of a new project. Or, in the terminology of Michael Jackson’s career, ‘era’.
It was an idea seized upon and utilised by eighties popstars – whose successes, partly as a consequence of adopting this tactic, endured to longevity. Popstars like Michael, Prince and Madonna. The practice continues today. (Just take a look at the evolution of Miley Cyrus and her male counterpart Justin Bieber. Although I think Madonna might have ran out of identities now as she seems to be recycling them. I’m not sure how many times now she’s bestowed the world with the revelation of her being bisexual.)
Madonna also went to see Bowie on his Serious Moonlight tour and said in an interview following the show,
“[Bowie] was definitely an inspiration… He constantly changed. He was more like an actor. He kept coming up with new ideas and new images and new feelings and thoughts to get everybody else stirred up.”
Madonna has repeated this homage since Bowie’s death, saying,
“I want to pay tribute to a man who inspired my career… he changed my life when I went to see him in concert in Detroit… he showed me that it was okay to be different… He opened the door for transgenders and made people feel like it was okay to be different, and it didn’t really matter if you dressed like a boy or a girl… what matters is on the inside.”
Bowie is seen as avant-garde in his advocacy of those that felt ostracised by orthodoxy due to their sexuality, dress or lifestyle. Throughout his career, he defied convention. He provided his audiences with a kaleidoscope of characters, each reinvention used as a means to embolden himself enough to have the confidence to appear on stage. Without the armour of a stage persona, Bowie admitted to feeling uncomfortable. This adoption of an alter ego to – paradoxically, perhaps – enhearten himself with the ability to express his individuality, also has the byproduct of giving his art the gravity of capacity for interpretation, and thus the power to inspire on an individual level. This capacity for flexibility also enabled Bowie to engage in juxtapositional career moves, which stratified his appeal to an ever-expanding fanbase. On the one hand, he could duet with Bing Crosby or narrate the introduction to Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman animation, whilst on the other, collaborate with Iggy Pop or Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails fame (a band, incidentally, that Michael was also a huge fan of, with them being the inspiration, musically, for his song Morphine).
Of course, when Michael reappeared with a new image for a new era, it wasn’t merely his wig that had changed. Michael embraced his skin disease and used it as both an excuse to alter anything he was insecure about as well as a basis for a new image for a new project. Michael’s continuing successes reinforced this behaviour. As Bowie said about his continuous changes, “I got quite besotted with the idea of creating character after character.”
As Lisa Marie Presley states during the Diane Sawyer interview, “[Michael] resculpted himself; he’s an artist.” A statement Michael then endorses with the words, “I’m a performer.” The philosophies of Bowie and Michael demonstrate that judging anyone by their physicality is farcical.
Michael was also different insofar as where Bowie assumed a different persona for each phase in his career, Michael could switch alter egos between songs during a single concert. Just watch on the Bad Tour how he transforms from a hunched, self-conscious figure into a strutting embodiment of self-confidence the instant the first chord of Dirty Diana is struck.
This is what the poet Keats called the chameleon quality – the ability to “tolerate a loss of self and a loss of rationality by trusting in the capacity to recreate oneself in another character or another environment.”
In a similar vein, many of Bowie’s songs don’t overtly draw from his own experiences, with the focus being instead on fantasy characters. One of the techniques he used when writing songs was the ‘Hunter S. Thompson method’ in which he drew inspiration from randomly retrieved words. This approach, however, is markedly different from Michael Jackson’s, in which the inspiration for his lyrics were most often drawn from his own life, albeit with the utilisation of fictional protagonists.
(Even Smooth Criminal (originally titled Al Capone) may well have been inspired by Michael’s introduction to the Mafia around the time of its writing; what with the period also inspiring such lyrics as “Just put your dime on the line baby, I own you… / Somebody said, give up instead on how you feel / One blow to the head is all you need”. With that last line feasibly a reference to the Pepsi burning incident that had recently occurred. With the success of Thriller, Michael encountered a murky world indeed.)
Bowie’s song Kooks (‘kook’ meaning “eccentric person”) from the 1971 album Hunky Dory, was written after the birth of his son, and anticipates his child growing up in unconventional circumstances. The song is an anthem for the acceptance of diversity and nonconformity and rallies against the rigid, stifling stuffiness of the traditional, sterile patriarchal system. Bowie and his then-wife divorced in 1980, with the singer gaining custody of his son. Bowie had been one of the first artists to openly express the idea of the inaccuracies of gender polarisation, and was also now leading the way for unorthodox familial arrangements. Something Michael Jackson ultimately exemplified.
In the early eighties, MTV had yet to begin airing black artists in regular video rotation. Rick James publicly denounced the channel as racist after its refusal to play his hit Super Freak. Michael’s Thriller video galvanised the change in attitude, along with Bowie’s now-celebrated confrontation with the contemporaneous MTV veejay Mark Goodman. Bowie audaciously ambushed a live interview with his enquiry, “Why are there practically no blacks on the network?” Before highlighting the fact that “There seem to be a lot of black artists making very good videos that I’m surprised aren’t being used on MTV… Is it not possible it should be a conviction of the station and of the radio stations to be fair… to make the media more integrated?”
Ironically, it was only when Bowie teamed up with legendary black producer Nile Rodgers, that he achieved transatlantic commercial success (with the album Let’s Dance – the title track being released as a single accompanied by a video depicting a message of racial tolerance). With Nile Rodgers being a man who cites Thriller as one of his favourite albums of all time.
Michael’s Remember the Time video was conceived in response to Spielberg’s refusal to cooperate in the production of a movie that celebrated a time in history when the wealthy, innovative, powerful societies of the world were black. Michael hired the model Iman Abdulmajid to play the role of the Pharaohess who would grant Michael his first on-screen kiss. Iman also just happened to be David Bowie’s wife. (Michael also employed the services of another black model in the subsequent In The Closet short film.)
Iman and Bowie were extremely active in their campaigning for many humanitarian causes, especially children’s charities. Bowie’s musical canon is peppered with songs inspired by a concern for the welfare of humanity, such as Fantastic Voyage and When the Wind Blows. Any legacy worth its salt contains such material – a bequeathal of the chance that future generations will discover their art and be reminded of the importance of love and respect for their fellow human beings.
Bowie gave a renowned concert in front of the Reichstag in June 1987, a year before Michael performed there – with both artists’ presence igniting riots on the other side of the Berlin Wall, and hence expediting its fall, and freedom for those in East Germany.
Concerning concerts, in March a memorial concert for Bowie will take place at New York’s Carnegie Hall. A mere three months after his death. It’s seven years now since Michael died. The Estate still haven’t managed to arrange a tribute concert for him.
Also, now Bowie fans have experienced the sense of loss unique to being bereaved of one’s hero, it would be interesting to find out their opinion on how they would feel if the Bowie Estate now attempted to release songs recorded by an imposter. To have to contend with problems of the ilk of our latest one, in which the director Spike Lee is claiming that Janet Jackson – the multimillionaire married to a billionaire – declined to partake in his forthcoming Off The Wall documentary because of tensions between the family and the Estate caused by money. Janet Jackson is not interested in money. She has enough money. Janet Jackson is interested in justice and due reverence for the legacy of her late brother.
There are other important differences between the suffering currently being experienced by David Bowie fans and that which Michael Jackson fans endure, with the former faction not having to contend with the malicious digging up of controversial subject matter their idol might have once said.
Racism remains, but our heroes inspire us to persist in our fight to see changes.
As Bowie himself said, “It’s not the politicians who will end oppression. It’s the radicals, with the stink in their clothes, rebellion in their brain, hope in their heart and direct action in their fist.”
The First Book of Michael by Syl Mortilla is available in paperback and on Kindle at http://amzn.to/1GycUw1 and for all other eBook devices at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/511371
Italian translation available here: http://amzn.to/1O85aRV