Bowie and the Rock’n’roll Generation — Was It All Just a Lie?
Bowie is dead. For many of us of a certain age, the event is marking a great period of reflection. For those of us who grew up in the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties, Bowie was a constant presence, a great voice telling us that the mission of youth, art, and music was to transgress—to push our society’s boundaries, break taboos, and enable progress to a freer and more just world. He wasn’t alone—rock and roll and pop culture was filled with that vibrant, progressive energy. And barriers did come down. The world did change. We did become freer—at least for a while.
Three years ago Bowie sang “Where are we now?” It’s a valid question. In the vacuum left by his passing, I find myself looking around and asking myself, where is the new Bowie? Where is the young, energetic, transgressive rebel who will capture the imaginations and energies of a generation and channel them into breaking down conservative restrictions on our minds and behaviours?
I’m older than I was. I’ve no idea what the teenagers and early twentysomethings of 2016 do with their restless young energies at school and in the formless potentialities of the years which follow it. But I suspect—from looking around me—that those energies are being expended in a directionless vacuum. Almost everything on offer is prepackaged youth rebellion; a faux transgression, a simulation of the very real revolutions of the post-war generations. All around me I see a worship of wealth and celebrity which isn’t all that different from the forelock-tugging deference before aristocracy and authority which reigned before the Bowie years.
It’s important to remember that the dark years of the Great Depression and the Second World War were preceded by the Roaring Twenties—a decade of huge social progress and liberalisation. Weimar Germany embraced its nudist beaches, the young Soviet Union tried to force an intellectual utopia on a nation of undereducated farmers, music erupted from the stolid era of establishment-approved classical music and jingoistic music hall into one of genuinely popular music—jazz, straight from the blues of the black ghettoes of America. In our civilisation, periods of liberalisation can be followed by clampdowns and resurgences of conservatism. Is that our fate now?
I’ve been harbouring a suspicion. The backlashes against the cultural revolutions of the Bowie generation began in the 1980s, the Thatcher-Reagan era. I still remember the euphoria following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989—the huge optimism throughout the world that we were about to enter an age of freedom, internationalisation, and great social progress. Instead we got the Oil Wars, the New World Order, and a massive resurgence by the Right and a repeal of many of the civil rights we’d arduously wrestled from an oppressive establishment in the hundred years before. The game was up when the UK establishment—politicians and media hand-in-hand—touted the vacuous, manufactured, and hyperconformist Spice Girls as “feminism” and “girl power”, as if sexual self-objectification for the male gaze was somehow “liberating”. At that point, the initiative in the subversion game had passed from the forces of liberalisation and progress to those of conservatism and retrenchment. The Right was now subverting the tropes of the Left.
And again, the questions. How? And why? How could it be so easy to roll back those decades of optimism and struggle towards a brighter tomorrow, and replace them with cheap commercial knock-offs which promised the same but delivered nothing but a cheap sexual sugar rush? Was it that easy?
Perhaps it was.
The biggest threat to the Western establishment in the Twentieth Century was the Russian Revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union. It terrified the living daylights out of our nominal rulers, that the people could rise up, overthrow their aristocrats and politicians, the rich, the bankers, the forces of international capital, and sweep away that entire system and try to replace it with something more just. The fate of the Soviet Union—the gangsterism of Stalin, the terrible persecutions and murders of the Terror, the stagnation and eventual collapse in the Arms Race with the USA—was by no means a given in the early 1920s; it looked quite possible that social democracy, socialism, even communism might actually succeed.
The solution our Western establishment came up with? To attack it, everywhere. To encourage forces hostile to the Soviet Union, wherever they were. To combat this ideological opponent, which said the rigid class system of rich, poor, and oppression which prevailed in the West was wrong, with every tool at their disposal. The result? Hitler and the Second World War.
In the rubble of World War Two our Western establishment needed us to rebuild. With suspiciously good timing we suddenly found ourselves in a liberalising world, where our ideology had mysteriously shifted from “Those evil commies—God save the King!” to one of socialism and democracy, which allowed us to compete—on paper, at least—with the Soviets, and come out smelling of roses. Social justice, universal healthcare and education, a breaking of the confines of conservatism, blossomed everywhere throughout the West. The creative energies released were vital to our Western establishment to rebuild following a devastating war—and to resist the ideological threat posed by a huge and nominally socialist superpower on its doorstep.
There’s my suspicion, the question which haunts me. Were the Sixties and Seventies simply allowed to happen, as part of the battle against the Soviets? Certainly as soon as the Soviet Union fell in the early 1990s, the forces of retrenchment lost no time at all starting to claw back the progress our society seemed to have made in the interim. Today, in 2016, we’ve lost a lot of the freedoms we had thirty years ago; the rich-poor divide is now the worse it’s been since the end of the First World War. We are moving backwards.
It happens so slowly, today’s generation barely sees it’s even there. But those of us who grew up during the Bowie generation—we remember how it was. We see how we’ve fallen.
And so I ask myself—was it all just a lie? Just the most cynical social engineering, and not the freedom we thought? And there’s only one thing that can prove it wasn’t; if, right now, in an era of deepening injustice and conservatism, a new Bowie can arise, to rally us to a flag of freedom, transgression, and progress, and break down the walls which the forces of corporatism and conservatism are re-erecting all around us. Or will we just do as we’re told?
There’s a hole in the sky—a black star where there once shone a blaze. And we desperately need some light.
Sarah, Normandy, 14th January 2016