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David Bowie: In praise of plasticity

Some pieces of music erupt from such an unexpected place for the listener, sweeping away all that came before, that one is left dumbstruck, speechless, in its presence. That happened to me the first time I heard "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars." Very few artists ever achieve that singular moment. Bowie would repeat it several times over his career until his death at age 69 on Jan. 10, 2016.

Some pieces of music erupt from such an unexpected place for the listener, sweeping away all that came before, that one is left dumbstruck, speechless, in its presence. That happened to me the first time I heard "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars." Very few artists ever achieve that singular moment. Bowie would repeat it several times over his career until his death at age 69 on Jan. 10, 2016. And it wasn't just the music that would stop me and so many of my peers in our tracks—his embrace of plasticity in shaping the narrative and the narrator made these musical journeys all the more compelling.

David Bowie
Image courtesy www.davidbowie.com.
Plasticity, as any engineer can tell you, is the propensity of a material to undergo permanent deformation under load. In the artistic lexicon, the term is used more loosely, typically defining the malleability of a medium or, in the case of Bowie, an entire persona that melded with the musical creation of the moment. More than any other artist, Bowie exemplified artistic plasticity, and that was a unique proposition in the summer of 1972, when "Ziggy Stardust" was released.

In the late Sixties and early Seventies, seriously considered rock music embraced what you might call "authenticity." In terms of look, think of the Band's shaggy, unkempt style. Lyrically, the Byrds gave us step-by-step instructions for becoming a rock 'n' roll star, which included selling "your soul to the company, who are waiting there to sell plastic ware." Plastic was not cool.

Then along came this bizarre creature with "screwed up eyes and screwed-down hairdo." The whole package felt plastic in some intangible way, and pointed to a new modernity. I can remember having terribly earnest discussions at the time about the fraudulence of manufactured authenticity as opposed to the truth of artifice that did not hide its nature. (In my defense, I was young and it was the Sixties.) We did not know then that Ziggy was just one iteration of many beings to come that would form a uniquely compelling body—literally and figuratively—of work.

I don't recall any lyrics by Bowie that specifically referenced plastic, but music critics have on more than one occasion used the term as an adjective in their attempt to define the artist. Bowie himself used the term "plastic soul" to describe the music on his "Young Americans" album, in which he fed elements of Philly soul through his creative prism, polymerized it into something different, and reshaped his persona to fit that sound.

His final, definitive transformation took place last week, and, with a flourish that is quintessential Bowie, he left us with a powerful last musical will and testament, "Blackstar." The record debuted this week on the Billboard 200 chart—his first number one album.

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