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Last Week’s Hype: On the Blackstar album and death of David Bowie

Can David Bowie’s death be seen as a carefully staged hype, just one last version of the musician’s ever-surprising public persona? Cultural Studies researchers Gerlov van Engelenhoven and Bram Ieven look into it.

Hypes! Hypes are all around

Social media hypes are as gluttonous as they are transitory. Once a week at least such hypes spread out like a BP oil spill over the dashboard of our pinterest account, crawling through our Twitter feed with the frantic speed of snake. Luckily, however, most of these hypes have the permanence of a mayfly.

And yet, occasionally there are exceptions to this rule. While drinking a glass of Vitell water in his honor last week, with a whiskey on the side, a friend of ours put in words a feeling that many of us probably share: Bowie was only 69 when he died, yet his output and presence, as a musician, actor, artist, fashion icon is so far-reaching that it almost feels as if he was always there.

Could last week’s hype, the death of rockstar David Bowie just days after he released his latest album Blackstar, be understood as an exception to the transitor nature of hypes? Does the surprise and shock of Bowie’s unexpected demise reach beyond the heartfelt waves of condolences, personal and semi-personal memories, disbelief, desperation and mourning following the news?

It just might. And here’s why.

The King of Transformation

Not only was the release of Bowie’s Blackstar album very timely, available just days before his death, it is also littered with references to Bowie’s personal life (“By the time I got to New York, I was living like a King”), and his imminent death (“look up here, I’m in heaven now”). Like many of Bowie’s albums, Blackstar is a deeply personal album. At the same time, it is a bleak comment on the rules of making it in pop culture, a lesson in what it means to create a hype and how far reaching that can be.

What was so remarkable about Bowie, what perhaps secures his lasting presence as a performer extraordinaire in the pantheon of pop culture, is that the ever-changing personae he developed through his musical performances seemed to comment on the times in which they manifested themselves.

Bowie had his first big breakthrough with the Ziggy Stardust character, which he developed when he was only 25 (what did you do?). Looking with alien eyes, Bowie takes measure of the world today and comes to rather bleak conclusions. Ziggy Stardust embodies the experience of living in a post-apocalyptic urbanized world, the cognitive overload and schizophrenia of modern life. The glamour and androgynous image of Ziggy was reminiscent of the

By the time he was 31, he had played one version of his many selves in The Man Who Fell to Earth. He had also moved to Berlin with Iggy Pop in order to quit cocaine, playing, co-writing and producing Iggy’s The Idiot and Lust for Life, whilst working with Brian Eno on his own albums Low and Heroes, the latter of which is a collection of songs that were all recorded in one take! And he had played the lead role in David Hemmings’ Just a Gigolo. Three years after that, around ’81, he had appeared in Christiane F., starred in Bernard Pomerance’s play The Elephant Man, had released two more albums and a live album, and was working towards his ultimate worldwide breakthrough and establishment as an icon, which would come with the release of Let’s Dance.

The Blackstar Hype

Those are just personal favorites taken from a career that contains just too many highlights, milestones, career shifts, horizon expansions, the list goes on. Any attempt to bring it all together into one summarizing piece will ultimately fail, if completeness would be its purpose.

And that is exactly why for once a social media hype (mourning David Bowie) seems to be a productive and genuine phenomenon, that actually adds value to that which it obsesses over. The endless amount of links to articles old and new, as well as personal posts, in an unstoppable stream of memories, favorite songs, music videos, photographs and citations, seems in fact to be a more than appropriate testament to this kaleidoscopic artist, who killed his personae time and time again, only to be born again as a new face, with new costumes, a new sound, a new personality, new collaborations with new artists, never looking young or old, alive or dead, to such an extent that many of us have been wondering over the years if there actually still was, or ever had been, a real person behind his invented characters.

Blackstar was the latest, and final personae that Bowie created, talking to us from beyond the grave. And that this persona, the blackstar which Bowie claims to be on his album, was well aware of the impact he would have, indeed that this persona is a comment on the impact of stars even as they move from hype to hype, becomes strikingly clear when Bowie sings “everybody knows me now!” That turned out to be prophetic, for as last week’s hype passes David Bowie’s album succeeded in achieving what Bowie had never achieved during his lifetime: on Sunday 17 of January, a week after his death, Bowie’s Blackstart entered the charts on number one. Both in the UK and in the US. Now that’s what we call a hype.

About the writers

Gerlov van Engelenhoven teaches in the BA International Studies, Bram Ieven is a lecturer in the department of Dutch Literature and Culture. They are both employed at the Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society, and together they teach “Introduction to  Cultural Studies” in the BA International Studies, where they earn first year students to analyze and interpret cultural phenomenons such as … that’s right, David Bowie.

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