One of my journalistic heroes is The Onion’s entertainment writer, Jackie Harvey, whose column is called The Outside Scoop. The whole notion of writing about writing about entertainment and popular culture can be a perilous one. If one is not properly briefed, it is rife with solecisms and observations that are not properly au courant. Jackie goes one further by regularly getting names wrong. He’s a journo I can really empathise with when I enter the same territory, my fingers trembling over the keyboard lest I type and then post something irredeemably naff and outmoded. But go there I will in this post. Jackie also regularly succumbs to Oscars fever, so I may well be returning to him in a few weeks time.
I have to first acknowledge the lateness of this post. I can’t recall if it is another of Jackie’s inadequacies, but then I’m only a part-time cultural commentator. The delays in getting around to writing this, coinciding with a succession of notable celebrity deaths, have resulted in this post having a slightly different emphasis than it originally would have.
Whether it is solely attributable to communications technology, I am not enough of a technologist cum social commentator to be able to say, but we certainly have more celebrities than ever. Celebrity fatigue might have set in for some of us, but growing demand easily outstrips the numbers disengaging from keeping tabs on the cultural public realm. However, what is also palpable is the way singular figures still exist in our culture. People whose achievements and cultural contributions stand apart from art’s tradesmen. David Bowie, who died earlier this month, was by common assent in that category. He inhabited more cultural spaces than arguably anybody else in the last half century, while also creating new ones. And in so doing, he was the most eloquent of spokesmen for the concept of performance and the artist as consisting of multiple components, with a genius for fusing those components to create unique and lastingly significant creations.
Bowie’s death was received in a manner that called to mind previous observations about the “Dianafication” of British public life, a reference to the unabashed public grief that followed the demise of Diana, Princess of Wales. It was also notable for the vast numbers of people claiming to have felt their own deep personal connection with Bowie, a classic symptom of the celebrity age, and arguably one hugely amplified by technology. If some people were irritated by the implied solipsism of these reactions, it is only fair to counter that by remarking that there seemed to be an authenticity about this instance of public mourning, perhaps best demonstrated by the spontaneity of the street party in Brixton on the evening following the announcement of his death.
For myself, it has been a time for self-reproach. I have spent much of the last few weeks listening to the music, which I had always liked it, though I would never have been able to pass myself off as a proper disciple before now. While those great records – Hunky Dory, Diamond Dogs, Station to Station, Low, Heroes, et al – comprise but one strand of his extensive artistic legacy, they still left me with the feeling that I should have spent more time invested in Bowie when I was growing up.
Some codas are necessary before signing off on this post. The actor Alan Rickman was another possessed of a wide range of talents, and a particularly precious asset for an actor, that great voice he had. Others have written about his great career, and indeed his political courage, but I will just say a brief word about two of his most memorable roles where he played really quite wonderful villains. In Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves he stole all of Kevin Costner’s thunder, while he helped elevate Die Hard to the status it still enjoys, in my view, of being the greatest action movie of them all. It is not unique to marry menace with humour, but the charismatic way he did it – with a hint of camp and a kind of knowingness that didn’t detract from the suspension of disbelief that cinema’s magic relies on – made every moment he spent on screen in those films one to savour. Rickman was truly irreplaceable.
A sad vale also to Glenn Frey of the Eagles, a band who, it must be said, both attracted devoted followers while also dividing opinion. It is true to say that the list of musicians who cite The Eagles as an influence don’t exactly trip off the tongue, but that probably doesn’t really explain the level of resentment they elicited in some quarters. They were set up as a rock band, increasingly so from the mid-1970s onwards, but yet the output was softer and more melodic. That seems to have wound a few people up, who found them either too polished, too relaxed, too Country, or just too … Californian. For others, they committed the cardinal sin of being just too commercially successful. I, however, count myself among their defenders. Even the though much of the music was very much of its time, the Eagles achieved their own form of timelessness, a lot of it owing to Frey’s determination and perfectionism. And they were undoubtedly technically proficient. If that adds up to an unconscionable slickness for some music listeners, for others it is music with unequivocally warm associations, and, speaking for myself, probably always will do.