by Edna Gundersen / USA Today
12th March 1997
Renowned for exploring the fringes of pop music, Bowie first visited electronica in such late ’70s masterworks as Station to Station and Low.
Industrial rock and the European drum-and-bass trend color his current Earthling, earning his gushiest raves in 20 years. Arriving amid 1997’s explosion of techno music, the album is attracting young consumers of alternative radio and MTV, despite the fact that the rock chameleon, 50, is older than many of their parents.
“If he’s not the first alternative artist, he’s definitely in the top five,” says ’90s alternagod Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins. He performed on David Bowie and Friends: A Very Special Birthday Concert, an all-star production airing through Saturday on pay-per-view (consult local cable provider).
“He’s provided the archetype for what’s going on now,” Corgan says. “That’s not to say he invented everything he did, but he’s always managed to understand things very early on. He’s such a special person and a singular artist. There’s nobody you can compare him to.”
Nattily attired and sporting spiky red hair, the chain-smoking Bowie talks about creating the otherworldly Earthling and resuming a series begun on 1995’s avant-garde Outside, a time-warped concept album based on the fictional diaries of a detective investigating ritual art murders.
Q: You turned 50 Jan. 8. Was it a difficult milestone?
A: No. I experienced greater upheaval at 40. Everything I read about hitting a midlife crisis was true. I had such a struggle letting go of youthful things and learning how to exist and have enthusiasm while settling into the comfort of an older age. It was an awful period and it took me two or three years to re-balance. Now I’m comfortable with my age and what I’ve achieved.
Q: Earthling takes us to subgenres like jungle, drum-and-bass and industrial. Do you see rock heading there?
A: I do believe that’s how rock will evolve. Dance music is no longer a simple Donna Summer beat. It’s become a whole language that I find fascinating and exciting. Eventually it will lose the dance tag and join the fore of rock.
Q: It’s huge in Europe, but here “dance” is still considered a euphemism for disco. Any theories about why it’s slow to reach the masses?
A: We’ve had immense social problems in Europe, but in the past 10 or 15 years there’s been real multiculturalism, which is incredibly lacking over here. The abyss, especially between black and white, has never been so wide in America, and that social tension may be an obstacle in producing the kind of buoyancy that got everyone into Europe’s dance scene.
Q: Besides creating a fresh sound, does Earthling’s mix of synthesized beats and organic instruments represent a standoff between humankind and machines?
A: Yes, and never let them get control! The amalgamation of real instruments and technology provides the soundscape I’m happiest with. I don’t like purely techno things.
Q: Why did you return to the topic of extraterrestrials?
A: It’s entirely metaphorical. An armchair Jungian would say the whole thing is about my own ongoing spiritual search. My interior life has always been one of trying to find a spiritual link, maybe because I’m from a family of separate religious philosophies: Protestant and Catholic. As a kid, I wondered where I fit in. Do I actually even believe in Christianity? It was sometimes traumatic, but now I don’t mind the hunt. I know that I won’t find the answer, and that’s all right. The search for certainty is definitely a road to insanity.
Q: Did you ultimately reject Christianity?
A: I feel more drawn to agnosticism or Buddhism. I’m probably an agnostic troubadour. It’s in everything I write.
Q: Why, do you think, are people so intrigued by the notion of life on distant planets?
A: We are so suspicious of organized religion, both the morality of it and the question of whether the medieval hierarchy of the church actually functions in this era. It’s been suggested by various philosophers that the passionate thing to do is to kill God and reinvent him. Maybe we’re in the process of doing that.
Q: Do you and Brian Eno still plan a sequel to Outside?
A: It’s called Contamination. We formulated the story line and decided to do it with no other musicians and to not meet while recording it. Brian pulled up roots, sold his house and took the wife and kids to Russia. We’ll send the tracks back and forth between St. Petersburg and wherever I am. The story will go backward and forward between the 17th and 21st centuries. We’re going to get even more esoteric – art with a big A.
Q: Outside looked at a society in chaos near the end of a century. Do you sense a cultural seismic shift as we approach the next millennium?
A: I do. Emphasis on individuality is disappearing, and there’s a move toward a communal feeling. The distancing between corporations and the people is wider than is acceptable, and people feel they have to fend for themselves far more than they ever used to. (They) worry more about how to get through the week than what they will do in five or six years. That’s not a bad thing. Let’s get today right before we start casting out ridiculous expectations about the future.