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Soundbyte 227: Blackstar

11 January 2016

I woke today to the news of David Bowie’s death. It was announced in a short post on his facebook page that he died peacefully surrounded by his family after a courageous 18 month battle with cancer. Like many of his fans I found myself browsing through articles and listening to some of his songs, remembering the so many times and places his music touched my life. I was particularly curious to listen again to his new, and now final album that came out just a few days ago. And as I listened and read the lyrics, the words took on a new and deeper meaning, especially together with watching the two videos he released. Later today I read that the album’s producer has confirmed that the album was designed to be a carefully orchestrated farewell to his fans.

So for this soundbyte I chose the video for ‘blackstar’, the title track in this album. The first part of the song has a dark, disturbing feel to it. We see what resembles a religious burial ceremony of some sort. Then in the middle of the video the atmosphere changes. We see bowie, possibly up in the heavens, holding up a book with a black star painted on the cover. His eyes are searching, as if he is a prophet looking to pass the book to one of his “disciples”. Bowie sings, possibly talking about his mortality and the continuation of his work:

Something happened on the day he died

Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside

Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried

“I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar”

Perhaps talking about how he wants to be remembered, he then sings “I’m not a pop star, I’m not a film star, I’m a blackstar”, maybe implying what being an artist truly means to him, Something that emits darkness as well as light, Something that’s profoundly human. The black star symbol also appears on the album cover. The only album in 25 that does not feature a picture of Bowie himself on the cover.

Those are just attempts to decode the hints he left behind. Ambiguity has always played a large role in Bowie’s art, it leaves a large enough space for his listeners to put themselves into his songs and connect with them, and as a result with him, emotionally.  And this will carry on long after he’s gone.

While going through articles written about Bowie, I also learned about the contribution Bowie had to the development of the internet as we experience it today. In 1998, years before bandcamp, myspace,  facebook and other platforms connecting musicians with fans came into existence, when the internet was in its infancy, bowie started his own internet service provider company. The company, named BowieNet, not only provided fans with an internet connection that was better than what ISP’s back then had to offer, but also allowed them to upload and share content with each other, and of course to access Bowie’s music and participate in live chats with Bowie himself.

In 1999, during an interview, Bowie stated the impact he thinks this new technology will have on the music business:

 “We’re on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying, The actual context and the state of content is going to be so different to anything we can envisage at the moment – the interplay between the user and the provider will be so in simpatico it’s going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.”

Bowie understood that music, or any other form of art is a form of communication, and will have to change along with the changing ways we communicate with one another. In his life, to the very end, he embraced technology as a way of strengthening the bond with his fans. The website that accompanies “blackstar” features a universe of stars, each representing a post tagged with #imablackstar somewhere in the social universe. Maybe a universe Bowie can look down upon every now and then and see a star light up when someone is thinking about him somewhere. I just hope they have a decent internet connection up there 🙂

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