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A Second Face: Notes On The Cover Of David Bowie's The Next Day
Ryan Alexander Diduck , January 10th, 2013 05:09

Ryan Alexander Diduck explores absence and Bowie's identity with reference to the artwork to forthcoming album, The Next Day

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Though the unexpected return to public life of David Bowie provides much to be excited about (the lightening-fast news; an achingly naked single 'Where Are We Now?'; a newfound melancholic fragility in his voice; an abysmally baroque video) it was the artwork to the new album The Next Day that intrigued me most. Superficially, it is nearly too clever for its own good, and became a quick and easy target for the internet meme mill. But this cover deserves more sustained attention here, and not just because it's a heroic recycling effort, or an instructional nod to Bowie's precedent glories. The generalized absence of his face is truly an important trope, a work of art unto itself.

Nearly every David Bowie record (save for Earthling when he turned his back on us, Reality when he went to the virtual far side, and Lodger when his face was a foot) featured his chiseled visage - always an indicator of cultural currency, of fashion and fame. David Bowie's art is not separate from his life, which seems that of a gentleman who, despite having been on sale for nearly half a century, still remains unconsumed. As with everything he does, Bowie's methods and manoeuvres are deliberate, mannerist to a fault. So why now this about-face? He hadn't shown it much for some time as it was.

Still, Bowie's works are not simply stylized; there is no division between form and fashion, style and content. And if album art is its facade, then his ever-changing mask is doubly absent from The Next Day. Bowie is consistently one and the same with his style. His sonic and visual aesthetic sensibilities work in lock stride, and despite the top-secret nature of the record's unveiling, it seems inevitable somehow that this kind of extremely conspicuous facial erasure should be Bowie's current choice of self-representation.

Of relevance here, Susan Sontag warns against commending destiny for cultural texts in her 1965 essay On Style. She writes, "The sense of inevitability that a great work of art projects is not made up of the inevitability or necessity of its parts, but of the whole." David Bowie has been able to interpolate himself with precision into culture's forward momentum over the course of his career, to put his face in tomorrow and slingshot onward, as if he were meant to have been there all along. This is the totality of Bowie's style: each work has to appear to fit together perfectly. And so, if Bowie's old face is cut out of the picture, it must tautologically resurface elsewhere. Of course it does, mythically disembodied, in the video for 'Where Are We Now?'

In the clip directed by longtime collaborator Tony Oursler, Bowie croons this sad tune with an eyes-down frown, his face like a carnival tableau within a Siamese twin-gendered two-headed plush animal toy - an impossible body. This carnivalesque device is called prosopopeia, the rhetorical strategy of speaking as another figure, a cut-in, inserting the face into an inanimate body, walking the dead, as it were. Writing on this familiar but understudied phenomenon, University of Texas at Austin anthropology professor Craig Campbell argues that juxtaposing one's facial features onto another form is also a radical reconfiguration of the relationship between face and body, an amalgamation, a reanimation, both imagined and real. Campbell writes, "what to one looks like dis-embodiment, to another looks like re-embodiment: the re-constitution of the self. The hybridization of once distinct entities. And, most importantly a statement in favour of fragments."

In his astounding book A Voice and Nothing More, Mladen Dolar notes that a disembodied voice nonetheless implies some body, "enough to be cumbersome and embarrassing; in all its living presence it is also like the corpse one cannot dispose of." I believe that Bowie's fragmented bi-body in this newest video signals the collective desire for human extension through prostheses, a future biology, faces stretched out across eternity, over an ideal form - a poignant contemplation on Earthling mortality. Dolar writes, "the voice without a body is inherently uncanny… the body to which it is assigned does not dissipate its haunting effect." The body haunts the voice like the face haunts the body.

Faces are layered strata of experience, revealed or concealed historical terrains, media of the most sensitive and subtle communication. And the fragile voice of Bowie's erased face, a face void of a body, is a ghostly voice that haunts itself most. But one way to evade being haunted is to always be the one doing the haunting. Susan Sontag knew, at its essence, that style is soul, and that the soul has a face: "In almost every case, our manner of appearing is our manner of being," she stresses. "The mask is the face." Here, Bowie's familiar superhero mask is concurrently effaced and updated anew.

Since 1999's Hours, the man who fell to Earth fairly self-consciously eased into his own golden years, a period characterized by what Edward Said described in his posthumously published 2006 book, On Late Style, as "works that reflect a special maturity, a new spirit of reconciliation and serenity often expressed in terms of a miraculous transfiguration of common reality." There was really no conceivable way that Bowie could release such a comparatively untimely record without it acknowledging its own absence, without it referring in some way to those which came before it, for it not to be on some level a statement about itself, as well as exercising Bowie's singular commentary on the things that surround him, things that seem important to him, which lately appear more and more to be made of memory. The cover of The Next Day is retrospective, revisionist without being retromaniacal.

Through Theodor Adorno's reading of Beethoven's late works, Said meditates on the differences between the body as flesh, which dies, and a significant body of artwork, which does not. Immortal harmony, Adorno believed, could only represent its brooding composer's confrontation with death. Adorno contended that, faced with his own mortality, Beethoven's subjectivity begins to evacuate his later music, leaving "only fragments behind, and communicates itself, like a cipher, only through the blank spaces from which it has disengaged itself." A black-tie-and-white-noise image contained within 2002's Heathen depicts Bowie with blotted-out countenance, eyes blinded, a simultaneous over-saturation and self-effacement. Once again, Bowie returns to this lowly planet, fashionably late, a blank space oddity.

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Jan 10, 2013 11:27am

i hate it when people put lightening instead of lightning.

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Jan 10, 2013 11:37am

Has David Bowie released a new song or something?

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Jan 10, 2013 11:38am

Interesting article, but to be honest this cover is only interesting if you're completely unaware of developments in Western art after 1950. Blah blah blah, you can't see his face, wah wah wah, form over content - we've been here before, please would someone change the fucking record.

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Jan 10, 2013 11:54am

and the over analysis begins.....

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Mr Agreeable
Jan 10, 2013 12:05pm

As for David Bowie, well, you f***ing knew that desperate old twat would have got his f***ing yellowing, vampiric f***ing fangs involved in a f***ing project like this! Ah. Yes. TV On The Radio. Marvellous. Yes, I'm very up to date with the modern scene. Bright new labels like 4AD. Young music. Young blood. The blood of the young. Blood! Blood! Must have blood! Come hither, my young ones. Chateau owning c***!

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Jan 10, 2013 12:11pm

The designer's own blog post on this seems relevant.

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Metal Mickey
Jan 10, 2013 1:24pm

I’m wondering if the full album campaign and accompanying artwork might consist of other blocked-out old Bowie album covers…? And lest we forget, he’s already done this before, the back of the “Scary Monsters” album cover (33 years ago!) featuring some scribbled out older images from (what were at the time) his last 3 albums; "Low", "Lodger" and (yes!) "Heroes"...

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Jan 10, 2013 3:52pm

Yet another Bowie article but no mention as yet of the return of The Knife? It's great he's back but some perspective please, Quietus folk.

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Jan 10, 2013 7:59pm

Too much, too soon... You've not heard the LP yet, & none of us know for certain that this will actually be the cover anyway. Has it crossed your mind that, perhaps, Bowie is merrily taking the piss & intends keeping the genuine sleeve design under wraps until much closer to the album's release date, hmm?

Lyrically, much of The Next Day allegedly addresses Bowie's sojourn in late '70s Berlin. As "Heroes" is the only album of the misconstrued "Berlin trilogy" to actually have been recorded there (except for a bit of Low), that surely explains his direct referencing of it in the sleeve design for the new LP? Or something.

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Jan 10, 2013 8:11pm

I'm almost always on board with The Quietus, but this piece is extraordinarily pretentious. Let's all take a breath, eh?

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Jan 10, 2013 9:39pm

Cheers - I still think the cover is crap (a bit sophomoric, a bit "I-looked-up-semiotics-on-Wikipedia"), but I admire your stepping across the coals (/trolls?) to give it a fair hearing. Have to check out that Dolar book...

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Jan 11, 2013 12:50am

In reply to Rooksby:

We know that this will be the cover. Read the blog post by the creators...

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Jan 11, 2013 3:58am

In reply to Dan:

Agreed. And let's leave Sontag and disembodied poetics....aside...Exhale...The way I see it, the puppet bodies are just a kind of vulnerable/tender sign, to leaven the seriousness. The guy's been through a brush with his own mortality, he even appears just standing against the wall at one point, no make-up, dressed just like I see him in the summer when he goes out for coffee in the afternoon near Woodstock: black jeans and a t-shirt, an interesting old guy.

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Jan 11, 2013 5:08am

Wow, the Quietus really loves Bowie with these 3 articles this week. I'm not complaining though - I'm sopping this stuff up, and I am enthused that you've chosen to write about the awesome cover art.

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Jan 11, 2013 5:08am

Yeah, this "othering" of Bowie is getting silly. Here's a little advice: listen to Low and Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures one after the other. Suddenly Bowie's "face of the future" sounds a lot like fucking Emerson, Lake & Palmer. I like Bowie, but, come on, he's entrenched in rockist posturing; articles like this do nothing but reflect the author's desperation to find one last boomer "icon" who doesn't embarrass them the way the Stones or Who do. Sorry. But Labyrinth was 25 years ago. Get on with your life.

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Jan 11, 2013 12:16pm

the cover is both dismal and brilliant at the same time. plastering a non descript post it note over heroes creates a nice bit of both intertextuality and a fuck you to the past, which the first single seems to symbolise as well, though there it seems more like a mournful recall than a fuck you exactly. its basically bowies twist on 'revisiting (though it looks like hes going to do this quite literally, lyrically at least if nothing else) past glories' - referencing it quite explicitly without pretending he isnt.

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Jan 11, 2013 3:20pm

In reply to Nick:

ha I can't tell if you're disagreeing with me sarcastically or on the internet I guess.

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Jan 11, 2013 11:47pm

In reply to :

I can live in hope can't I?

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Jan 12, 2013 12:37am

You really think Bowie represents a "blank space"? Well, let me help you see some of the contours.

Bowie has never been about innovation; his work seeks consolidation, and, as such, is deeply conservative. In this respect Bowie is just like Queen and Zeppelin; he doesn't write and perform rock music, he writes and performs Broadway musicals about rock music. If the Diamond Dogs album sounds "edgier" to you than overblown crap like Born to Run, it is because Bowie was shrewd enough to pilfer window dressing from the Velvet Underground, not Howlin' Wolf.

Bowie and Queen are the biggest British representatives of the self-congratulatory tail end of boomer pop; in this respect, his relation to rock music is different from Green Day's relation to punk only in that Green Day no longer pretend they're not backwashing nostalgia to suckers. The only thing that keeps Bowie from being a pure nostalgia act like Sha Na Na is that he is focusing his craft on a moment of pop history slightly closer to the contemporary moment. Groups like Cabaret Voltaire, meanwhile, were already ten years in the future.

When Bowie started to feel compelled to live up to his unearned reputation as an innovator, he borrowed the surface textures of Eno, Kraftwerk, and, later, Nine Inch Nails and Goldie. Unfortunately, he continued to import the Broadway musical structures and histrionic, self-aggrandizing rock-god vocals from the 1970s. There is simply no way to make this graft work; the music he was trying to co-op was designed to reject the theatricality that he spent his career cultivating.

This is why any three seconds of an Autechre song are more innovative than anything Bowie ever committed to tape; Bowie accepts the boomer idea of rock music and strives to curate it, and to extend this mentality to music that rejects his attempts. He fails to understand that the best music of Gen X wants nothing to do with boomer structures, at least in music terms (they got some milage out of the make up and silly suits).

And now he is digging deep into his own catalogue, hoping to pull out something he can dress up in colours that evoke Arcade Fire but still hew to the same tired song structures he's been relying on since Letter to Hermione.

This cover image isn't embarrassing because of its deliberate artlessness; it's embarrassing because it is yet another attempt by Bowie to cast himself in the aura of the moment when his heart is so obviously trapped in the past.

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Jan 14, 2013 9:48am

In reply to John:

Nailed it.

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Feb 2, 2013 4:17pm

"Where Are We Now" is cryptic. Is he literally showing us that the bottle is empty?

This is my interpretation:

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east end
Feb 9, 2013 4:16am

im gonna have some like major unchill nighmares tonight bout the time my ex girlfriends bipolar feminist sister came to stay and spoke at me bout the female eunuch for like 32 hours.totally crushed my chill.

ps-id maybe look at it in the exact opposite terms,that rather than a clean slate and rebirth,its a full stop(you could argue that they are the same thing though),being that heroes is the album that has came to define bowie in this day and age,it signals short hand for his whole covering his face/they are signifying the end,metaphorically with this albums release the blank slate will come to cover all of heroes eventually,and thats it all over for him(as a iving breathing public icon,the last decade points to this).on a broader note it works as a cultural full stop to the whole era of "rock n roll".who better than bowie to deliver this goodbye? so i suppose it is a clean slate but it wont be bowie that comes from it,hopefully something new and unrelated.

probably not explained this that well,its late im tired.:)

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