On David Bowie's Perfect Imperfection, Circa 1974

By Laforest, Daniel | English Studies in Canada, June-September 2013 | Go to article overview

On David Bowie's Perfect Imperfection, Circa 1974


Laforest, Daniel, English Studies in Canada


HERE I SUGGEST defining imperfection as an event that takes place solely in the public realm. There are no intimate imperfections. In intimacy there is only disappointment. And disappointment is relative to one's self-perception. It takes numerous eyes--literally a public gaze--for the idea of imperfection to coalesce and rise above the shimmering and hardly measurable line of the personal.

Such a definition has two consequences. First, to consider imperfection in the public sphere is to make it an irregularity that takes place inside the consensus on how things should unfold. It is a deviation. In critical terms one could say that imperfection only happens inside the spectacle, in the broader sense of the word. Second, public imperfection is expected to reveal the humanity, the unpredictability of everything that depends on flesh, blood, and doubts when it is cast in the spotlight and channeled through the media apparatus. It is a revelatory accident, and as such it can be conveniently put aside, pointed at, and examined.

But what about imperfection when it is an integral part of the spectacle?

I am not talking about staged accidents or rehearsed comedy routines aimed at creating shock value and uneasy reactions. I am not even talking about imperfect moments when they are recuperated and reproduced ad infinitum on online channels like YouTube, with the harsh buzzword "fail" having upstaged the neologism "blooper" that used to label them not long ago.

I am talking about imperfection as a medium in and of itself: as an apparatus producing situations, articulations, and communicative stances that would otherwise remain impossible in a performance.

Following the impressive normalization of the public figure of David Bowie accomplished by the David Bowie is traveling exhibition opened first at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, I started thinking about the amount of risks involved in the career of such an artist whose every performance has not only been a reinvention of his aesthetic but also a liability. Sheer talent and artistic intuition do not even begin to explain how such reinventions could be accepted by the public without a certain amount of disasters or, at the very least, failures. But in the public eye, at least in the eye of the public who rushed to see an exhibition devoted to his timeliness and timelessness as a performer, David Bowie has never failed.

One thing leading to another, I came upon online footage of Bowie performing his song "Young Americans" on the Dick Cavett Show in 1974. Right out of the gate, this is interesting. Because for anyone remotely interested in 1970s' nostalgia, 1974 can come across as the imperfect year par excellence. It always seems to me like nothing much happened in 1974 pop culture.

Tellingly, the album Young Americans is arguably the weakest among Bowie's otherwise impressive output during that decade. But it did produce two hit songs: "Young Americans" and "Fame." Both songs attempt to appropriate and channel the idioms of African-American soul and funk music through a barely noticeable, and yet ever-present, artificiality. Bowie himself spoke in interviews of wanting to do "plastic soul" music. …

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