R.I.P Bowie, Prince and my (lack of) knowledge

January 11, 2016. For a few minutes after the unexpected announcement of David Bowie’s death, Internet’s heart stopped beating. Under pressured fans stared in disbelief at their screens, expecting the ridiculous hoax to be quickly exposed.

For me, a whole different wait started. These crucial minutes constituted the last ones available so as to figure out … what the hell did David Bowie sing. Of course, I’ve previously encountered his face and overheard his songs. But if it wasn’t for my Facebook feed instantly overwhelmed with tributes, I couldn’t have linked “Bowie” to “Let’s Dance”, let alone to this totally unknown Ziggy Superwho again ?

Journalism largely consists in saying “Lord Jones is dead” to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive. (G.K. Chesterton)

A mourning world started to display its love story with the deceased singer, hailing his genius and creativity. Everyone cherished a personal anecdote. And surprisingly, I also had one. Two, actually.

  • A dozen years ago, “Let’s dance” was playing on the radio from time to time. The sole hit from the usual playlist where I couldn’t name the singer…
  • David Bowie was such a chameleon that I’ve mistaken him for both Mick Jagger and Iggy Pop. When I broke the news of his death to a friend, she praised his talent before realizing … she was referring to Bob Dylan. Making me understand that I was too. (By the way, who is he exactly ?)

April 21, 2016. Here we go again. Phones from all over the world vibrate, and at the sight of the death notification, their owners shake too. Beloved Prince has passed away. But who the heck was this “Kid from Minneapolis” (that I may have mistaken for Boy George at some point), and what is going on now with purple ?

Prince performing in Rotterdam in 2011. Photo by PeterTea (Flickr CC).

A RACE AGAINST THE CLOCK OF STUPIDITY

Until now, my general lack of education had remained pretty unnoticeable, notably because I kept winning Trivial Pursuit games. Who could have suspected me of such a dramatic ignorance ? There is one strong difference between these two passings though. At least, with Bowie, you could follow a simple procedure : keep silent, dive into his latest album on Spotify, and frenetically look up all the internationally renowned clips available on Youtube. My aim to remain undercover in my non-Bowie frenzy fortunately represented a reachable one. But knowing Prince’s feud with the musical industry, the task was undeniably harder.

A viral tweet (which has since then disappeared).

In front of me, hoards of fans, from disbelieving to crestfallen ones. This controversial tweet, posted on the eve of Bowie’s final exit, perfectly embodies the extent of such a singer’s fandom. When you’re ignorant of his outstanding artistry, exclusion from this planet becomes a logical punishment. Praised as true geniuses, Bowie and Prince constituted bottomless inspiration sources for numerous human beings. It was more than time to consider my sins, understand how I could miss out on people who’ve been deemed among the most influential and game-changing artists in modern music.

AMERICAN CULTURE, I LOVE YOU

First, let’s consider one parameter : I live in France. Over the very first days of 2016, we’ve successively lost a popular singer (Michel Delpech), a virtuoso conductor (Pierre Boulez), an amazing actor (Michel Galabru) and a revolutionary fashion designer (André Courrèges). Being cognizant of these names already suggests a good level of “normal” French culture. Is the rest of the world stupider than I am ?

A Tamil friend of mine once claimed that she didn’t know Brad Pitt. I repeat : Brad Pitt. Because she had lived 99% of her life in France, such a bold declaration sounded dubious. To this day, I still suspect her of exaggerating. But what if she was not ? In her mind lived the detailed filmographies of Indian and Sri Lankan actors, undeniable members of the superstars cast you only witness in Bollywood. Me ? Never ever heard of these guys. In short, she discarded (my) mainstream culture in order to be highly versed in an area in which I was desperately dumb.

This ad is way less convincing when you don’t know Shahrukh Khan Swaminathan (CC Flickr)

THE BOUNDARIES OF KNOWLEDGE

Am I personally more or less knowledgeable if, as a young Parisian girl, I am more familiar with Turkish music than with Prince ? Perhaps am I building myself a rogue identity, slowly excluding myself from the cultural mainstream. Access to information also remains a crucial issue in our debate. Are all cultural tidbits equivalent, and is youth or different economic backgrounds sufficient excuses to any “lack of knowledge” ? In the eyes of an ever-judging society, are you erudite if you know by heart the ingredients of a Big Mac, or is this label reserved to those who can quote Shakespeare without blinking ?

How to define the boundaries of our essential subcultures, and expound those of a “universal” one ? No one has ever mentioned the existence of a mandatory corpus of artists to be aware of. Do I have to share a special memory with David Bowie, Prince, Michael Jackson and other superstars of that kind ? Maybe a part of me surreptitiously died with them, along with my dear Facebook friends. Their eternal rests mark the slow decoy of my acquaintances’s memories and childhoods, emphasizes the mortal condition of our idols … just like ours. A trend goes away, a star dies, and we perceive that we’re slowly sliding towards the “older generation” we were mocking seconds ago. I am not sure that my ignorance prevents me from this saddening process.

THE LEAGUE OF LEGENDS

My parents often regret out loud that they’re “not part of this world anymore”. They can’t name a single hit of Justin Bieber, don’t know who the hell Ryan Gosling is, and may not be aware that Lady Gaga isn’t a high profile pop star anymore. But they’ve watched every single movie Audrey Hepburn has made, know a bunch of Dean Martin’s songs and have read at least one book authored by Tolstoy. (For the record, Bowie and Prince’s deaths didn’t plunge them into a cultural shock like me.)

Maybe the blame should be placed upon them then ? Perhaps that in addition to teaching offsprings how to walk, talk, eat, dress and behave, an often missed-out part of the parental burden lies into listing every living legend on Earth. Preparing your progeny for the day these artists will pass away. Establishing such a catalogue shall be a little strenuous, especially as far as there is no established criteria for “legendaryness”. For a long time, I thought the ultimate skill was the ability to cross boundaries, countries and generations. But with globalization and new technologies, I can’t fathom why Justin Bieber would have more privileges than David Bowie or Prince, only because his team knew how to generate a buzz.

Justin in 2011. — Adam Sundana (Flickr CC)

INTERNET, THOU SHALT SAVE US FROM IGNORANCE

Internet, this magnificent repository of all sorts of wisdom and knowledge. One could argue that this tool makes it our personal duty to check on famous songs, movies, books, sculptures, paintings, architectural works, stamps, kilts, stoups, pastry forks. Just like missionaries chanting God’s glory in remote parts of the planet, the recommendation process allow our peers to share worldwide all kinds of cultural items. We ought to receive them as gifts directly originating from our friend’s experiences and tastes, opportunities to expand our horizons.

Another way to deepen our knowledge ? Brilliant services like Spotify’s Discover Weekly, with the possible drawback of simmering into your own realm of preferences. Widening one’s prospects sounds more profitable. On this point, mass media’s responsibility may be at stake. Prince’s example points out how easier it is to feature someone who‘s in the news (in short, who has something to sell). He was too busy living in the firmament of legends, I guess. Devoid of any intent to climb down from that pedestal, these stars cautiously disseminate proofs of lives in the form of new artworks. Discretion is the politeness of true icons.

GET RICH AND DIE TRYIN’

Prince had reached in his lifetime the status of “mythical creature”. Naturally, his ability to remain somehow underground helped him create a special aura. Absence from the main stage can bring you rare benefits, including financial ones. Artists strive to earn money, which is more than fair. A little odder is the usual phenomenon displaying death as the best marketing tool ever. Prince’s albums’ sales have already skyrocketed, fast-tracking him to the top of the charts. Nowadays, the mourning process casually includes compulsive buying disorders. Just like Michael Jackson, or David Bowie, Prince proves that no matter how much you’ve changed the face of music, you still remain a product.

Fortunately, it’s never too late to discover how to like an item … or a person. Tributes are one opportunity among others to explore a career and be amazed. I suspect David Bowie to have known better. He was sure aware that a bunch of people like me were completely oblivious of his artwork. And wrote in one of his last songs, that death can act as a revealing facet of a whole mysterious and foggy masterpiece : life.

Look up here, I’m in heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me now.
(Lazarus, David Bowie)