'David Bowie is'
Victoria and Albert Museum
23 March-11 August 2013
Bowie's all-time nadir was undoubtedly 1987, bequeathing us a hideously overproduced album that the singer himself would later disown, appalling '80s big hair, and a painfully naff appearance on the debut of American Top of the Pops. A decade is a long time in planet pop and all the Teutonic grace of 1977's "Heroes" had vanished into 1980s conformism. Things couldn't get much worse, but perhaps they did just that with 1989's much-maligned Tin Machine 'project'. By comparison, 2013, like 1993, seems to be Bowie's year again, with a major retrospective at the V&A and his first album in ten years, The Next Day, the latter catching everybody off guard as many believed Ziggy really had retired for good. As for 1993, we will return to that shortly.
From 1984 until 1992 Bowie ploughed through a long artistic wilderness, 1983's Let's Dance taking a blow torch to the enigma that he had so carefully nurtured throughout the 1970s. Although there were still occasional flashes of former brilliance--Jean-Baptiste Mondino's suave and proto-'90s black and white video for the Never Let Me Down single (1987) is actually a bit of alright--it took until 1993 for Bowie to rediscover his creative mojo, not so much with Black Tie White Noise, but instead (and more obscurely or esoterically) with The Buddha of Suburbia. Based on Hanif Kureishi's excellent semi-autobiographical novel, Bowie composed an intelligent soundtrack for a BBC four-part miniseries in mid-1993, drawing on his 1970s past for inspiration, as well as giving his best interview in years, Tony Parsons' 'Bowie by bowie', in Arena, May-June 1993, illustrated with a treasure trove of archival illustrations. Tin Machine derision behind him, Bowie was now at the beginning of a return to relevancy and his first really good album in years, 1. Outside, followed in 1995.
Now fast forward eighteen years. The fact that there had been no new Bowie 'product' for a decade made headline entertainment news on 8 January 2013, Bowie's 66th birthday, and the London Evening Standard got in there first with a whole-page story on page 3, triumphantly titled 'Let's dance... Bowie's singing again'. The serious broadsheets followed suit on the 9th, running front- page and major stories --The Times with live pages--as if this was an event of global importance. This level of interest doesn't happen when you bang out an album every two years or so. And then the story disappeared as quickly as it had materialised.
Not long before its opening, the show was extended from 28 July until 11 August--the V&A was clearly anticipating bumper interest. Would there have been such interest- and a staggering 50,000 advance tickets sold, the most in the V&A'2s history--if Bowie had not chosen to release an album to coincide with the exhibition? And is Bowie's silence for so long really driving the current level of media-hype interest in him or, so my suspicions niggle at me, is he babysitting for some kind of wider...