First published: Mojo, June 2000
Not very Mojo, is it, style? Per se, it’s about surface, the look not the substance.
In fact, style could well be the absolute epitome of of what really doesn’t matter about any given era. But then Mark Paytress does avoid even a solitary mention of “semiotics” – always a plus – and he has researched and thought truckloads about the world’s favourite art-rocking elder statesman and multiple metamorphosier.
The author’s plan is three-pronged: a) lots of lovely pictures, b) a style-related biographical narrative, and c) interspersed chapterettes on diverse side issues (most enjoyably, a full-page piss-take of Bowie’s inability to give up smoking).
If anything, it’s b) that slows it down. Where a full-on analytical approach might have leapt hither and thither across the years and radically redrawn the Bowie map, chronology renders inevitable a degree of stolid plod through what everyone already knows.
Even so, over-familiar notions do get a shaking. The real drama of Bowie’s fundamental challenge to everyone’s identity problems (via the fantasy of stardom) emerges strongly and rather sadly in quotes such as, “Sometimes I don’t feel like a person at all., I’m just a collection of other people’s ideas” and “I can’t stand the premise of going on (stage) in jeans and being real – that’s impossible.”
There’s the nub. Bowie raised questions of artificiality both intelligently and whole-heartedly so that, at his best, he wasn’t about style, he was about life and what he did was art. Which is better and more scary than style.