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Bowie and the Rock’n’roll Generation — Was It All Just a Lie?

January 14, 2016


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

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Simon Hibbs permalink
    January 15, 2016 12:24 pm

    I think most people don’t feel the need for a massive social revolution. We don’t have a bazillion different types of pop music, free flow of opinion and information across the internet, thousands of charities and NGOs active on social issues, the normalisation of transgenderism and gay marriage and the collapse of big media because the establishment secretly wanted it that way for nefarious purposes of social manipulation. Or at least if we do, how exactly is their control over all of this exerted?

    Yes social engineering is a real thing, but by it’s nature it is intrinsically overt. Bar a few very marginal exceptions that are effectively one-off pranks, you can’t change the opinions of large swathes of the public without some of them noticing that you’re doing it. Psychohistory was the idea that in a deterministic world you could identify key infection points and trigger massive change through minimal effort. But that doesn’t work. Chaos Theory blew that whole concept completely out of the water. Yes there are inflection points, but there is just no way to predict or manipulate them ahead of time. A butterfly flapping it’s wings in Brazil might lead to a hurricane in south east Asia, but you cannot manipulate hurricanes in south east Asia by controlling trained butterflies in Brazil.

  2. Josh permalink
    January 14, 2016 8:40 pm

    A key note is that conservative and progressive don’t mean right wing and left wing.

    You can have right wing progressives and left wing conservatives, it all depends on if the moral authority in the country they come from has a right or left wing basis.

    In protestant (especially evangelical countries like America and the UK) this means that you have left wing progressives and right wing conservatism. In other countries (Some southern Catholic countries, Islamic countries) you have Right wing progressives (Punk) and left wing conservatives (Christian Socialist parties).

    North America will eventually enter a phase where the authority is held by folks who grew up in left wing homes. They will be left wing conservatives in charge. Opposing them will be a generation of right wing anarchists looking to destroy institutions like marriage, home owners associations, higher education requirements and other middle class power structures over the poor.

    Then the cycle will repeat.

    • January 14, 2016 9:04 pm

      Very true that the boundaries of left and right are muddled by the place that political parties hold. However, political parties is what we have created to uphold and carry values into the realm of the social. Until new forms of socialibilty arise, we are currently stuck with this form.

      So, yes, you are right or correct that social classes will rise up and demolish old class prejudices. That is what democracy does. However, parliaments and many venues have been neutralized which goes back to Sarah’s point. Is it all a lie?

      No, it is not a lie, for as Jefferson points out the social engineering would have to be so massive that it could not be contained. And, yes, Sarah, we have seen massive defeats in the gains of social democracy and yes, there is a danger for the whole democratic project. However, what happens is then an explosion somewhere. Whether it happens in Greece, the United States, or Australia – hard to know. Just as nobody predicted the success of the communist revolution in Russia. It explodes and creates a new form of politics.

      Right now, there are all sorts of signs that new politics is upon us. Yes, there is always a counter-revolution, but things rarely go back to the way they were.

      A lie can only exist so long. It just requires that people do not live in truth. Right now, most of the world is content to find comfort in the lie. That is why, 1989-1991 represents the hallmark change, one set of lies that had become “truths” were dismantled and thrown out. The task before us, is to salvage the truth that emerge from that rubble and build a new narrative.

      So far, those who advocate the deepening of the democratic project have been unsuccessful. It does not mean that we always will. For as much as Greece may disappoint, it also creates a space for the next country or social collective. Thinking beyond the nation-state has been the classic problem for the Left. So, we are likely to see the demise of certain forms nation-states just as we did with Yugoslavia or the USSR in the developed capitalist countries (Canada, US?, Belgium, Spain, Italy, UK?) and the emergence of local resistance that is pan-European or North American, in scope.

      The rest of the world can take inspiration from that and a new politics emerges.

    • January 15, 2016 9:54 am

      Yeah, good luck arguing that the current forces of reaction, repression, warmongering, and crony capitalism are in any way left wing, Josh. Socialism these people are *not*. 😉

      That said, I think it’s important in our current climate left wing and right wing are archaic distractions and used to keep is arguing fruitlessly. The real battle in our time is between the forces of authoritarianism and liberty. And the old left wing and right wing have already split and reassembled on both sides of that divide. There’ll be some strange bedfellows as we try and claw our lost rights back – the “new politics” Boris is talking about.

  3. January 14, 2016 6:36 pm

    Do you believe that the moon landing was faked? The US certainly had reason to want to convince the rest of the world that we had made it to the moon, and was certainly capable of staging the footage of the landing itself. However, if you are still on a first name basis with reality, you probably realize that way to many people would have had to been in on the fake in order for it to have ever been kept a secret. The people who shot the fake footage would know, the “astronauts” would know, all those people at NASA mission and ground control would need to be in on it, as would the people who arranged the recovery of the capsule Pacific following “splash down”, and it would be necessary to co-opt Earth-side astronomers to back the story. All in all, thousands of people of people would have to be in on the fake, and people just aren’t that good at keeping secrets. The truth would have gotten out decades ago.

    Well, social engineering the Sixties would have required orders of magnitude involvement than faking the moon launch. It would to have been done across national borders and would have needed to involve many law enforcement agencies, and the heads of these agencies and there immediate circles would have had to have been it least partially aware of the goal. Even those not made privy to the plan would know that something was up due the strange orders they were being given. “Me and the boys were getting ready to go out and bust some hippy heads but then we got an order from up top not to. This happened all the time”. There would have been agent provocateurs entrusted not legitimize crack downs but just to spread rebellion for it own sake, and these agents would now be wanting to tell there own strange stories.

    tl:dr – the Sixties couldn’t have been social engineered because too many people would have known about it to ever keep it a secret. Therefore as strange as it seems the Sixites and Seventies actually happened so please back away from the edge of conspiracy theory madness.

    As for your old fogey talk shallow and materialistic nature of today’s youth, young people are organizing and doing stuff across the world. They are striving to address environmental concerns, political repression, economic injustice and inequality of educational opportunity from Chicago to London to Beijing to Tunis. If they have found ways to do this in ways other than wear eyeliner and tight clothes, well good for them.

    Not that I am knocking eyeliner and tight clothes. My brother has a husband and I don’t think this would have been allowed to happen it artist and everyday people hadn’t been pushing gender boundaries out in the open and up on stage. Victories have occurred and the fight has moved on.

    • January 14, 2016 11:58 pm

      I think you’ve either misunderstood or are misrepresenting what I’m saying, Jefferson. I’m not talking about some elaborate conspiracy theory – I’m talking about social engineering. It happens, and has happened throughout history. The question is whether the postwar liberalisation was a real victory or something that was planned or encouraged to rebuild after the war and resist the USSR on an ideological level.

      I’m also certainly not suggesting the ‘younger generation’ (your cliched generalisation, not mine) is somehow indolent. People don’t behave in herds, nor in ‘generations’. I *am* saying I see no large scale socially progressive movements critiquing the status quo right now, and in fact I see a lot of disapproval of such mindsets in public discourse and the media. Of course there are smaller scale movements – Occupy and Anonymous spring quickly to kind – and of course highly motivated groups are active everywhere. But I’m interpreting the lack of a focal point for transgressiveness and opposition to the establishment and the constant media disapproval of such attitudes as possible clues that, yes, social engineering may be at work.

      Think beyond the cliches you’re bringing with you. They’re not what I’m saying.

  4. January 14, 2016 6:09 pm

    Not sure if it was a lie. For industrial societies to give rise to common problems. And, elites from both sides of the bloc grappled with the baby boom and echo afterwards. So, it is not that they could not create the 60s and 70s but they could channel it into new forms of expropriation. Much as Napoleon III could channel things as Napoleon did but fail miserably.

    History and cultural industries shift along with the great tectonic forces that are underneath them. Sometimes, that is advances in technology, sometimes advances in education and sometimes even demographic. One sees the sixties and seventies, as the eclipsing of the longue duree that was created in the aftermath of 1917 and saw its final conclusion take form in 1989-1991. We are living a new world order since then…problem is that is crisis ridden and contradictory one that is very unstable. However, that has been the plight of modernity for some time.

    Until a new narrative emerges – the crisis will persist. The answer lies in democracy. And, if the democratic project is to survive the 21st century (that is a big “if”) it must do so by deepening and widening its scope. Traditionally that task has fallen to the “Left” as defined by the French Revolution, those who oppose the status quo. So, artists, workers of all sorts, entrepreneurs and everyone else who constitutes “the people” must unite to form a bloc to change the world. There is nothing to lose but the chains of an old and outdated way of thinking.

    The sixties and seventies showed us a flower of hope. It was planet and bloomed before the cold weather of austerity kicked in. However, seeds are planted and the next generation will grow anew.

  5. The V-Pub permalink
    January 14, 2016 5:56 pm

    I’ve wondered the same thing. Where are the rock n’ roll heroes? Perhaps the new artists have been corrupted by commerce. Maybe the music industry is so fractured with a multitude of labels. How many different genres were there in the 70’s? Now, there’s genres upon genres, and so splintered that it seems impossible to have any kind of movement. The Balkanization of music perhaps. Maybe just ambivalence. I’ve listened to his song ‘The Cygnet Committee’ recently, and I feel it’s what you’ve described in your post today. Perhaps he had seen it coming all along.

    • January 14, 2016 6:15 pm

      I think rock’n’roll was created in a spirit of rebellion against the establishment. Now, after decades of honours, knighthoods, and millionaires, it’s been suborned and *is* the establishment.

      I’m not sure where the next wave of rebellious energy and agitprop is going to come from, but maybe not music and probably not pop-as-we-know-it. It needs to have the power to outrage and offend, upset, subvert – so maybe it’ll be a crowd of youths with crudely implanted bodyhack brain-computer-interface implants, blowing their minds with mind- and consciousness-altering VR experiences in an illegal telepresence virtual reality somewhere. I think Bowie would like that. 😉

      • The V-Pub permalink
        January 14, 2016 6:18 pm

        So sad and true. Even rebels like Elvis Costello have become more tame with success. But some of the outrage is so contrived today. Who do we have? Miley? I think that Winehouse could have been that person, but she had her own demons to contend with. Bowie would definitely approve of the human/VR integration. 🙂

  6. January 14, 2016 3:08 pm


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