A Strange Fascination?: A Symposium on David Bowie: Conference Report by Julie Lobalzo Wright

by justindburton on December 6, 2012

After a stimulating first day of papers at A Strange Fascination?: A Symposium on David Bowie, the 30+ conference delegates convened in the back warehouse of Dolan’s Pub in Limerick, Ireland to attend a David Bowie gig. Obviously, the man himself was not present, but the tribute act, Rebel, Rebel were a suitable substitute. The gig, also attended by Bowie fans of various ages, exemplified a recurring theme that dominated the conference proceedings- namely, the complex relationship between academia and fandom. Indeed, the symposium was largely able to bridge the gap between these two areas through the scholars’ own fandom, as many presenters submitted papers about Bowie even if they were not Bowie scholars. However, the gig illustrated an apparent separation between fan and scholar. While many delegates drank, danced, and consumed live Bowie music with just a hint (or more) of irony, approaching the gig as a chance to let loose and enjoy the music, others found the experience bittersweet, and couldn’t help but feel the band were a poor replacement for Bowie (this is in no way a comment on the band’s incredibly spirited and accurate performance). Thus, the gig represented a microcosm of fandom binaries: joy/disappointment, authentic/fake, distance/intimacy. When the gig began, most delegates exhibited detachment from the band, both through their muted response to the music and their physical proximity to the stage, but as the set wore on, beers were consumed and the band began to play music from the Ziggy era, intimacy was gained through the shared experience of hearing, singing and dancing to live Bowie music with fellow fans. On the opposite spectrum, others in the audience found as the gig wore on, they felt despondent about seeing an imitation of Bowie and knowing they may never experience an authentic live Bowie concert again. In fact, the ghost of Bowie hung over the proceedings all weekend with many suggesting that while Bowie seems to have come to a point in his career where he is “himself,” his absence from music and the stage, in addition to the finality of  “Bring Me the Disco King” from his last album Reality, signal his possible retirement from music.

This focus on authenticity extended from the gig to the rest of the conference proceedings as the central question of the weekend (October 26-28 at the University of Limerick) became, “who is David Bowie?” The organizers suggested his lack of authenticity through his ability to reinvent his image (and self?) many times over, in addition to his musical influence, make him a star worthy of study. Martin Power, Eoin Devereux and Aileen Dillane, co-organizers of a conference on Morrissey that led to the book, Morrissey: Fandom, Representations and Identities (Intellect, 2012), focused on Bowie’s iconic status in their opening remarks, arguing that there are few cultural figures who would warrant a three-day examination of their image and career. The conference included eight panels, a roundtable discussion, a Bowie-themed DJ night, and the aforementioned Rebel, Rebel gig. Thus, the weekend afforded the delegates many opportunities to discuss Bowie outside of conventional academic conference spaces (suffice to say, with so many Bowie fans present, conversations about Bowie dominated every moment of the weekend!).

The first paper delivered at the conference set out many of the arguments that dominated the three days (Kathryn Johnson, “‘There is No Authoritative Voice. There Are Only Multiple Readings’ (David Bowie, Notes on Outside, 1995)”). Johnson, of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and one of the curators of the forthcoming David Bowie exhibit (March 2013-July 2013), suggested that the title of the exhibit, David Is…, poses the question as to who Bowie is but does not answer it, leaving room for multiple readings and personal reflections on the star, his music, and his image. The multiplicity of readings and meanings could be viewed as a barrier- with various ways to approach the star it would be difficult to come to any conclusions or even similar interpretations. Indeed there were papers that examined Bowie outside of typical approaches (musicology, iconography, cultural studies): literary studies (Barish Ali, “David Bowie and Literary Studies: A Reflection on Postmodern Pedagogy”; Vanessa Garcia, “How Superficial!: David Bowie in 21st Century Literature and the Art of Surfacing”), philosophy and political engagement (Richard Fitch, “Caricature as Apolitical Style: Bowie and the Manipulation of Social Norms”), and religious studies (Paul Fuller, “David Bowie, Buddhist Modernism and Charismatic Charms”). The lack of identical analysis created a space for delegates to question many core ideas about Bowie- man and icon. This was most apparent in the roundtable discussion featuring Bowie biographer David Buckley, Deputy Editor of Hot Press, Stuart Clarke, former Press Officer for Bowie at RCA and Ominibus editor, Chris Charlesworth, and Today FM DJ and lead vocalist from The Undertones, Paul McLoone. Each participant argued for Bowie’s cultural relevancy as a musician, performer, and artist, while also including their own personal experiences with Bowie (Charlesworth) or responses as fans (McLoone admitted he enjoyed the Tin Machine album when it first came out while Buckley wished to end decades of mispronunciation by asserting his name is pronounced BOW-IE, not BAU-IE!).

As evidenced in the roundtable, fandom and academia collided often, whether intentional or not because the desire to discover the “real” Bowie was both scholarly, but also personal. Part of his appeal for fans and scholars is his performativity and lack of authenticity through his multiple image transformations and character portrayals.  Character portrayals were given a psychoanalytic reading (Ana Leorne, “Dear Dr. Freud: David Bowie Hits the Couch: A Psychoanalytic Approach to Some of his Personae”; Ayten Deniz Tepeli, Busra Yalcinoz and Yasemin Tabbikha, “‘Everything’s Falling Into Place’: An Analysis of Maturation in David Bowie’s Music”) while others attempted to answer the question, “who is David Bowie?” (Hans Peter Frühauf, “‘Phillip is That You?’ Who is David Bowie?”). Some paper titles pointed directly to this issue of the man behind the various masks (Stephanie Piotrowski and Bethany Usher, “Turn Myself to Face Me: Bowie and the Discovery of Authentic Self”), although other presenters chose to examine the influences on Bowie as a way to discover a possible truth beneath the image construction (Richard Mills, “Anti-Heroes: The Influence of Vince Taylor and Syd Barrett on David Bowie’s Music and Lyrics”; William Garvin, “David Bowie and T.S. Eliot: Unreal Cities, Aliens, Androgyny, Transcendence and ‘Them Cawkney Voices’”).

Given the popularity of Bowie’s work in the 1970s, it is not surprising, then, that most papers focused on this decade, especially the Ziggy Stardust era, with only two papers examining Bowie post-1980s (Piotrowski and Usher; Tiffany Naiman, “Art’s Filthy Lesson: Bowie, Baudrillard and Aesthetic Degradation”). For fans and scholars alike, Bowie’s emphasis on visual iconography and questions of identity through his queer, androgynous, and alien images is fascinating and most present in his Ziggy incarnation (and the transformations that followed in the decade). Papers that focused on his visual image through his album covers (Ian Chapman, “From David Bowie to Diamond Dogs: the Obfuscation of Self and the Triumph of Alienation, as Traced Through an Iconographical Analysis of the Artist’s First Eight Album Covers”) and fashion (Helene Thian, “Moss Garden: Kansai Yamamoto and David Bowie in the 1970s Together Plant the Seeds of Japonism in the Western Fashion World”) touched on the singer’s sexuality and crossing of gender boundaries. There was an absence of papers that examined Bowie’s image from the perspective of queer theory, although both papers that analyzed The Man Who Fell to Earth and one paper that discussed Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence touched on his queerness, otherness, and issues of identity not conventionally defined as “man” or “woman” (Julie Lobalzo Wright, “The Extraordinary Rock Star as Film Star: David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth”; Dene October, “The (Becoming-Wo) Man Who Fell to Earth”; Mehdi Derfoufi, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being: The Star’s Body as a Desire for Otherness”). Although Bowie videos were played during transitions between panels, another missing element were papers investigating his diverse work in music video.

Overall, the weekend demonstrated how popular Bowie still is as both a cultural icon and an individual worthy of academic study (The almost 8,000 likes for the symposium on David Bowie’s official Facebook page also illustrate this). His play with image, masks, musical genres, and cultural influences allow him to become a fascinating figure to examine, but also a star whose devoted fans are still very passionate about him (included in the conference pack was a list of each delegate’s favorite three Bowie songs: “Ashes to Ashes” was most popular followed closely by “Heroes”). The conference also included an artist display from Tanja Stark (materials from the collection “Because You’re Young: The Pop Ephemera of a Teenage Bowie Fan” and her own Bowie mannequins and Russian dolls) and a very personal paper from Paul McCullagh about technology, Berlin, aging, and Bowie (“Time May Change Me…”). These papers and Sam Coley’s “Bowie’s Waiata: Radio, Documentary, Memory and Fandom” that focused on authorship and radio documentaries re-imagined by audiences online, display Bowie’s continual cultural relevancy. The mix of delegates from all over the world also illustrate that although Bowie has ceased to make music, fans and scholars are still discovering and rediscovering his work, trying to make sense of the man, the myth, the legend (even the title of the conference points to the fascination the Bowie image holds).

The organizers are already working to put together a book from the conference proceedings, but many at the event wondered who would be their next subject to examine. Most delegates could not imagine anyone that could bring together such a diverse group of individuals from various academic disciplines engaging with questions of self, identity, authorship, social norms, psyche, sexuality, gender, collaboration, performance and so on, as Bowie was able to. But, that may be his greatest appeal- an individual pushing us (fans and academics alike) to connect the dots, but leaving no sign as to any one truth or meaning .

Julie Lobalzo Wright completed her PhD in Film Studies from King’s College London. Her thesis, Men Crossing Over: Popular Music Stars in British and American Cinema From the 1970s to the Present investigated crossover stardom and included case studies of Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, and Will Smith. She is working on many projects that emerge from her thesis, intersecting with her interests in stardom, popular music, and masculinity and has a forthcoming chapter in The Music Documentary: Acid Rock to Electropop(Routledge, 2013).


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