November 30, 2015
Adam McGovern reflects on the ritual video released on 11/20/15 to foretell David Bowie’s upcoming 2016 album…
In a time of high technology and descending awareness, everyone’s a messiah for five minutes and has been Friended by God. In the first premonition of his new album next year — the video for a title-track significantly named with a symbol, not a letter in any language, ★ (“pronounced ‘Blackstar’”), for a world of post-literate portents — David Bowie is a prophetic figure. The dive-bar messiah of the “Next Day” clip has ascended and evolved into a kind of martyr-video soothsayer, but one whose cause seems so exclusively himself that he’s been able to live to a patriarch’s age.
“I am the message,” he famously rewrote McLuhan to an interviewer in his meta-pop-idol days, and here he proclaims, “You’re the flash in the pan/I’m the Great I Am.” He’s a voice in the wilderness, the bulrushes of the rustic future, declaiming in a madman’s attic, or the rafters of some abandoned house of worship where he’s been banished like a golem.
Somewhere in deep space, cultists shake around a long-dead astronaut’s jewel-encrusted skull; these are all women, communal, and Bowie is a lone male voice with a whole three acolytes, just enough to maybe make a new human race out of; whether the coven with their eternally-eclipsed sun are the object of his worship or his idea of the devil above (“We were born upside-down/Born the wrong way ’round”) is not for us to know. Three crucified, living figures, set like scarecrows as an unheeded barrier against zealotry (maybe?), writhe while a priest/ess figure in cthulhu-like dreads dances toward them; we don’t learn what happens.
Bowie is seen as both blindfolded streetcorner mystic and self-assured fashion-plate apostle; a savior without much following beating some holy book — “I’m not a filmstar, I’m not a popstar, I’m not a wandering star,” etc., his ambient voices sing in a circle from outside his head, but you can be pretty sure the symbol on his book is the star of Bethlehem, of David, the star inside the crescent, atop the stripes, and it will end as badly as it did In the Beginning.
The song is chaos-faith, with a beat that starts out sounding like a mic’d back-alley brawl and resolves into a nervous-tic techno rhythm, the clock-clicks of a self-aware machine with artificial madness; grand, ghostly organ tones float upward as they’re matched by Bowie’s heavy-gravity Gregorian croon.
It’s said that this 10-minute dirge was stitched together from two distinct songs. After the second time you hear it, it makes perfect sense, like religion’s override of logic, but Bowie’s compositional process does not lend itself to arbitrary leaps; the ideas he puts together flow in, they come to him, regardless of the galaxies that seem to be crossed in this video’s setting. The universe is shaped by who’s there to observe it (“At the center of it all/Your eyes”), and the soul/lounge/plainsong inflections of his vocal, like his bandmates’ brilliant cacophony of jazz and electro and hymn, and his imagery’s cultural references from Kubrick to Social Realism to ethnographic documentary, have intersected on subspace telepathic ley-lines at the spot where he’s standing, into a perfect pentagram.