Friday, March 22, 2013

In defense of an unfairly maligned artistic period practiced by one Mr. David Bowie.

One of the more abhorrent trends in new media is the list. Often pointless and use to garner pageviews and drive up ad prices they tend to be--in the worst cases--difficult to navigate and--in the best cases--just exist to generate a back and forth amongst readers over whether the list / rankings / whatever are complete shit or not. When lists do succeed, and in my estimation year-end lists are perfectly O.K., they offer something that's critically useful. Music publications LOVE lists, but do you really believe any one of them can rate the "best music of the '90s" or, ferchissakes, the "best music of all time?" Those wastes of font space are there merely to get eyes on the page.

But the list need not always be evil! I'm all for a well thought out critique of a band's output or "the weirdest moments of [musician x]'s career or anything else that feeds a true fans brain or tickles their fancy. And if something that's well written elicits a well thought response then, to me, that's a wonderful thing!

As happened with me earlier today while perusing Stereogum's ranking of David Bowie's albums from worst to best. Many sites attempt this, as is excellently parodied on a regular basis by The Awl, but Stereogum usually employs people actually familiar with the artist's work on their own series tackling various artists' canons. Of course when you're looking through someone's entire career your biases jump to the fore pretty quickly and it's fairly obvious what morst personally resonates with a critic. And this Bowie list is no different. All in all, I won't really argue with it as a whole, it's a valiant attempt and Aaron Lariviere shows himself to have a fine grasp on Bowie's career. In fact this isn't a response to his rankings as much as it is a response to a general judgement of one section of Bowie's career I feel is constantly and unfairly maligned.

No, don't worry, I'm not about to come to the defense of Tonight.

No, what I want to talk about is the weirdly intense hatred felt by most music writers for Bowie's work in Tin Machine.* The idea of Bowie creating an album of loud, messy hard rock seems to drive these people nuts. In fact I loved the first album from the first time I slid its tape into my Walkman in 1989. I thought, "Thank god, Bowie's playing a guitar again! And it's tuneful! And it's raw!" And yeah, O.K., so maybe the lyrics weren't at the height of avant-garde word-smithery but kee-rist it had been a decade since Bowie exhibited anything close to his old actually snarly and arch self.

I've read quite a bit about this time in Bowie's career since I couldn't figure out why people hated it so much and I think I finally found the answer; Hunt Sales. From every interview I've read it seems this guys was kind of a prick at the time and poisoned the music press when it came to Tin Machine. An alternate theory is that critics were confused by Tin Machine at first and when the clearly inferior Tin Machine II** followed it they just wrote off the whole project.

I think it's a combination of the two, to be honest. But I also think the concept of "Bowie as an equal member in a band" seemed grating as well, but any listen to the group's output shows that Bowie was pretty much running the show and when he didn't (ahem, "Stateside") things ran rapidly off the tracks.

So, dear reader, I posit that if the Tin Machine work is honestly judged the first album still holds up remarkably well. It marked the true return of the more artistically adventurous Bowie--even if the backlash briefly shoved him back towards the Let's Dance-light of Black Tie White Noise before Outside brought him back on track towards albums that got steadily better and better leading us to this year's The Next Day. If anything a true Bowie fan should exalat in the tin machine era, else we might have forever lost him to the drudgery of commercial expectations and an unseemly striving for public affections.

*While Lariviere ranks it as one of the worst of Bowie's work he does go out of his way to say it isn't as bad as others have said, and I suspect had he split the albums apart Tin Machine might have edged a bit better in the rankings since Tin Machine II, as I theorized above, may act as a critical weight on that entire period.

**It's actually so bad*** Bowie has allowed it to go completely out of print and doesn't even allow it to be sold on iTunes. Ouch.

***Actually "Baby Universal," "You Belong In Rock And Roll," and "Goodbye Mr. Ed" are pretty great songs, which kind of tells you how bad much of the surrounding material is that thos have largely disappeared. Which is truly a shame.

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