Monday night we moseyed over to the MoMA’s Roy and Niuta Titus Theater to take in 15 alternative-universe music videos from the ultimate rock star, David Bowie. As expected, Ziggy Stardust attracted a long line of finger-crossed folks waiting to score tickets to the sold-out presentation.
One Bowie devotee even propositioned us — an admitted first at a museum-curated event — for an extra ticket. It’s like Bowie was going to be there or something. We spotted said fan later, though, wandering into the buzzing theatre with wide-eyed anticipation. To say the least, the mood was electric.
Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, who handpicked the evening’s selection (out of the 40 videos gifted to the museum by the David Bowie Archive) with MoMA curator Barbara London, opened with a characteristically vibrant and vivid portrait of his encounters with Bowie as a west Kentucky teen — “Bowie was different [from Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper]…he was emotional and effeminate” — as well as the provocateur’s place in punk and rock’s storied history. Moore signed off the rousing introduction with his belated be-thankful-for: “the world [Bowie] made inhabitable for all you bedroom aliens out there.”
Pop culture’s make-it-new obsession discourages the notion of longevity, hurtling between “It” items at a predictably harried pace, but Bowie and his chameleon’s ability to hopscotch between imaginative, culture-spawned characters — lonely Major Tom, Ziggy, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke, Berlin Trilogy Bowie, etc. — has always managed to stay relevant. The videos (spanning 1972 to 1999) were representative of his reinventions and, overall, we were fascinated by what amounted to a moving, gyrating photo album.
We loved the early Bowie videos — the famed Mick Rock-helmed entries (Rock was present as were other Bowie video directors Mark Romanek and Sam Bayer), which, shot with a low budget and at low-rent locations, appeared as equal parts artifact and art. “Life on Mars” had to be the for-history highlight, with Bowie’s soft-lit face done up in pancake makeup and his damaged, permanently-dilated eye circled in blue eye shadow — at once specter and spectacle. We couldn’t help but think of the similar all-white backdrop and all-camera-eyes-on-the-artist style of Beyoncé’s “Green Light” video, which gives you an idea of the evolution of persona-showcasing.
The far-out, ethnic flavor of his middle, ’80s period — in delirious, unintentionally-hilarious trips like “Blue Jean” and “China Girl” — had its camp appeal. But we were less impressed with more recent Bowie, which veered towards the A.D.D.-editing that defines the MTV era — maybe it was the music. Save Gus Van Sant’s multi-screen look-back-at video for “Fame 90” and Romanek’s “Jump They Say,” a sleek ode to Chris Marker’s dystopic classic, La Jetée, it’s like Coke without the fizz — a brand name without the once-present pop.
If you missed it, the same program reruns on the 19th. For all those outside New York, here’s the playlist for your perusal; drop us a note about your favorite in the comments.
John I’m Only Dancing (1972) The Jean Genie (1972) Life on Mars (1973) Heroes (1977) D.J. (1979) Ashes to Ashes (1980) China Girl (1983) Blue Jean (1984) As The World Falls Down (1986) Fame ’90 (1990) Jump They Say (1993) The Heart’s Filthy Lesson (1995) Dead Man Walking (1997) I’m Afraid of Americans (1997) Survive (1999)