The Man Who Sold Himself: Construction of the Bowie Brand in the Context of Nobrow Culture

It has long been assumed that to be a true artist, whether literary, visual or musical, an artist must be removed from commercial reasons for producing art. However, English-born rock star David Bowie has consistently created music that is both intellectually stimulating and commercially successful. Bowie’s consistent willingness to use his artistic success for monetary gain could lead some to question his integrity as a musician. Yet, an understanding of Nobrow culture problematizes such a notion of “selling out.” By examining the ways in which Bowie consistently reinvents his image and his sound in order to remain in the centre of ‘the Buzz,’ as well as how he pursues endeavours that commodify his artistic self, we can understand how Bowie has constructed himself as a Nobrow cultural icon.

In the United States the stratification of culture into ‘high’ and ‘low’ has for a long time been a way of equating culture with social status.  As a result, the social elite set themselves apart from consumers of commercial culture, which is traditionally perceived as lowbrow. However, in Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing and the Marketing of Culture John Seabrook explains that such cultural distinctions are being dissolved and, in their place, Nobrow culture has emerged.  According to Seabrook Nobrow is “the exact midpoint at which culture and marketing converged.” What he means is that the distinctions between culture and marketing have been blurred so that the two are inextricably tied and ultimately indistinguishable.  In this new order status is conferred based on a “hierarchy of hotness” and proximity to “the Buzz.”

Buzz is an amalgamation of everything that is hot, topical and attention-grabbing, and the more Buzz surrounding any given thing, the higher up the Nobrow ladder of status it falls.

Seabrook attributes the collapse of the high/low distinction to Andy Warhol and the rise of pop art. According to Isabel Kuhl, author of Andy Warhol, “Pop artists found their motifs among everyday objects.”  By elevating the commonplace and everyday to the status of art, pop artists brought the distinction between high and low forms of culture under scrutiny. Andy Warhol depicted products of commercial culture, such as soup cans, in his art and in doing so raised what would become the quintessential Nobrow question: “Was it art or just advertising?” (Kuhl 42).  At the same time Warhol challenged the notion of proprietorship and authenticity by using mechanical means to produce his art and often engaging his friends and family in the production process. In this way, Warhol set the stage for Bowie, who would also subvert the notion of artistic authenticity through his continuously shifting image and many stage personas. However, while Kuhl explains that “Warhol did not trouble himself over the question of ‘originality,’” Bowie has become infamous for pioneering new styles of music and his inimitable sound.

Born David Robert Jones, Bowie changed his name in 1966 in order to avoid being confused with Davy Jones of The Monkees.  While he had started his musical career before this point, the name change marks the beginning of Bowie’s life as an artistic shapeshifter.  Bowie enjoyed his first commercial success under his new name with the release of “Space Oddity” in 1969.  Although the single had been recorded a year earlier, its release was delayed to coincide with the moon landing. In this way Bowie was able to tap into one of the most talked about events of this period and thus place himself in close proximity to the Buzz.

However, the Buzz is both fluid, demanding and, according to Seabrook, it has an insatiable appetite. In order to keep atop the hierarchy of hotness Bowie uses the Nobrow tool of ‘trend forecasting’ to pick up on new musical styles and appropriate them before they become well known. This is indicative of an essential Nobrow practice.  As traditional distinctions between high and low forms of culture fall away, society is increasingly mediated by popular culture. As a result people often seek out little-known cultural products, such as unsigned bands or experimental styles of music, in a quest for authenticity. The trick for the culture makers is to co-opt these underground trends and introduce them into popular culture. Bowie was able to accomplish this by picking up on emerging trends, such as the disco of the 1970s and the electronic music of the 1980s, and then, as Graeme Thomson puts it, “siphoning them into the mainstream through his own work”.  The shift in notoriety and popularity that he produces through this process creates Buzz that Bowie can capitalize on.

In the same way that Bowie’s sound has long been in a state of flux, so has his artistic image. Beginning in the 1970s Bowie created a series of stage personas, ranging from the elegant and romantic Thin White Duke to his most famous persona, the sexually ambiguous Ziggy Stardust. The outrageous nature of these characters and the theatrical component they added to his performances set Bowie apart from other musicians and contributed to his placement in the centre of the Buzz.

Bowie approached song writing with an intellectual mindset but the issues he addressed were presented through the guise of his various personas.  At the same time Bowie urged his audiences to see the performative aspect of his music as the sham that it was.  In doing so, he drew attention to the artificiality of pop music by showing it to be inherently theatrical. This is representative of Bowie’s status as a Nobrow icon as it embodies the “inauthentic authenticity” that Seabrook describes as the “essential Nobrow commodity”.  Bowie is at once being inauthentic, through his use of personas, and authentic, by highlighting trends that underlie pop music as a whole.

The sexual ambiguity that Bowie explored through his Ziggy Stardust character was also reflected in the content of his songs. Bowie’s lyrics avoid playing on any stereotypical gender roles and for the most part are free of references to gender of any kind.  Bowie biographer James E. Perone explains that through the gender-neutrality of Bowie’s lyrics “he allows for the listener to project himself or herself (regardless of their gender or orientation) into Bowie’s music. Furthermore, though his albums are often miles apart in terms of sound, Bowie’s songs tend to focus on feelings of alienation and hope. These subjects are the common thread that ties his music together thematically. The universality of the feelings that Bowie explores adds another layer through which people can identify with his songs. Coupled with the innovative and dynamic nature of his music that made Bowie Buzz-worthy, the fact that his songs were relatable on a large-scale was integral to Bowie’s ability to commodify himself, thus creating his own brand.

As Seabrook explains, the brand is “the catalyst…that makes culture and marketing combine” and thus it holds a very important place in Nobrow culture. Creating music that people can relate to was integral to Bowie’s ability to construct himself as a Nobrow icon because the brands you choose become part of your identity and thus in Nobrow culture judgments of taste are replaced by judgments of identity.  In order to create a brand there must be both “something to buy (marketing) and something to be (culture),” in this case through purchasing one becomes a Bowie fan (Seabrook 153). The following examples show how Bowie has continuously commodified various aspects of his artistic self in order to create what I’ll refer to as the “Bowie Brand.”

In 1997 Bowie took an unprecedented and quintessentially Nobrow move by making himself a publicly owned company.  In order to get an advance on the royalty payments that he would make over the next ten years, Bowie issued asset-backed bonds that gave buyers the royalty revenue from his twenty-five pre-1993 albums. The bonds sold quickly, backed by the assurance that Bowie sold more than one million albums a year worldwide.  The deal meant a quick $55-million for Bowie and represents the formal commodification of Bowie’s career as it literally gave people the opportunity to buy a piece of it.  This can be seen as an important step in Bowie’s construction as a Nobrow icon. While other musicians offered only albums and standard merchandise to those looking to purchase their way to fandom, Bowie was combining his musical career (his culture) with marketing in unprecedented ways.  Furthermore, the Bowie Bonds sparked a trend among other rock musicians who also wanted to collect on their royalties in advance and this placed Bowie at the forefront of the Buzz surrounding the securitization of rock ‘n roll.

Bowie continued with his cutting-edge approach to cultural marketing by embracing technology, and most prominently the Internet, in the late 1990s.  At this time most musicians were preoccupied by the threat the Internet specifically, and technology in general, posed to their album sales. However, Bowie was able to see the opportunities such technology afforded him. In 1998 he launched BowieNet, the interactive David Bowie fan page that went well beyond the scope of web sites dedicated to other celebrities. The site represented the opportunity for people to solidify their status as David Bowie fans for the small fee of sixty-five dollars a year.  Launched before social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook grew in popularity, BowieNet gives fans the opportunity to interact with other fans, and sometimes Bowie himself, through discussion boards and live web chats.  Membership to the site also gave fans access to members-only content, such as Bowie’s online journal and exclusive track releases. By creating the opportunity for lovers of his music to purchase their way to fandom, Bowie further developed the Bowie Brand in a way that clearly aligns with Seabrook’s definition of the brand in Nobrow culture.

Bowie continued to find new ways to develop his brand, even when live performances and album releases were scarce following the heart attack he suffered in 2004. In 2008 Bowie was commissioned to compile a 12-song collection for a limited edition CD that would be given to purchasers of the UK newspaper, The Mail on Sunday.  The resulting “iSELECT: BOWIE” CD contained many of his little-known recordings that Bowie identified as being among his personal favourites.  Each song was individually annotated with Bowie’s reflections and insights into their origins. The CD, which was sold-out the day after it was released, created such a Buzz among Bowie fans that it was eventually re-issued for purchase in stores and online. The success of this marketing move demonstrates Bowie’s uncanny ability to combine culture and marketing, which solidifies his status as a Nobrow icon.

The aforementioned examples are only a few of the ways in which Bowie has combined culture and marketing in new and innovative ways.  From using his name to sell bank accounts (through the BowieBanc) to developing a new model for marketing the work of emerging artists (on BowieArt.com), Bowie has time and time again proved himself to be a pioneer of Nobrow culture.  Throughout his career Bowie has continuously reinvented his image and his sound in order to stay on the cutting-edge, and thus in close proximity to the Buzz, which is essential to gaining status in Nobrow culture.  Furthermore, by pursuing endeavours that commodify his artistic self he has been able to combine culture and marketing in order to create the Bowie Brand. Through keeping himself in the Buzz and successful branding, Bowie has constructed himself as a definitive Nobrow icon.

Sarah Lambert

Sarah Lambert is a writer and editor with technicoloured hair and a knack for adventure. Born and raised in Canada, she’s recently moved to London to live the expat life in jolly ol’ England. Sarah specialises in writing snappy copy for creative entrepreneurs, artists, and nonprofit organisations in order to share their stories and build engaged audiences. In her spare time she likes making things from scratch; exploring new cities; collecting tattoos & stories for her articles; discovering new music; dancing at gigs; wearing colourful, thrifted outfits; savouring life’s small beauties, & documenting it all in the process. You can follow her adventures on Twitter or on her blog, The Laughing Medusa.