It’s been fascinating watching people mourn David Bowie. There’s a sadness there that I suspect comes from more than just the loss of a major creative icon. I think we’re also mourning the loss of the conditions that created and supported that kind of icon.
Bowie’s iconic status was a product of certain cultural and technological factors. Like all the gods of rock, he came up in a world with relatively few ways of creating and sharing media. And when most people are only spectators, and there are hardly any other channels or stations to turn over to, then it’s that much easier to dominate the the national conversation.
Our modern media world has blown that cosy homogeneity apart. There are so many different ways to enjoy media, and so much of it out there. The idea of any sort of mass canon is dead – instead, there’s only personal gathering of personally meaningful music, film, TV, games and just about any other kind of content you can imagine. These days, we’re all micro-curators of our own micro-channels, enjoying a range of media fully shared with at most probably a few dozen people.
Of course, Bowie was never cosy. But he needed a homogeneous, coherent cosiness to push against, to become coherent himself. That pushing against defined him in ways that would be impossible now. You can push against a hub; with a bit of effort, you can push against a node – but how do you push against a decentralized network? You can’t – if you try, it just melts away. The internet routes around rebellion as quickly and efficiently as it routes around blockages.
And there’s one other thing to mourn. Bowie wasn’t just a media construct. He was also built by the drama schools and generous state benefits of the 60s, supported by a society that understood that creativity both has profound value and needs time and investment to bear fruit. Those conditions helped post-imperial Britain understand itself in new, exciting ways. They no longer exist.
So we’re not just mourning David Bowie. We’re mourning the condition of full-spectrum stardom, broken by modern media. And we’re mourning the mirror we helped him – and so many like him – hold up to us all, shattered in the name of prudence.