On January 8 that part of humanity particularly interested in music was ready to wish a happy 66th birthday to one of the greatest icons of the last 40 years… little we knew that we were going to be granted a precious gift as if it was our birthday. In less than 2 hours it was everywhere: surprisingly, David Bowie is back with an unannounced and unexpected new single and video, pre-launching a new album in March. Someone wrote that it would have been less surprising if Elvis came back from the other world out of the blue. Can you argue that? Music fans, celebrities and the media all over the world welcomed Bowie’s return as the news of the day and perhaps of the year. It was a true storm, swiping away other announcements like the returns of Suede and Prince. In less than 12 hours the single and the pre-orders of the album went straight to number one on the iTunes chart over 16 countries.
Why did the public react with such enthusiasm? I think the answer to this question can be found in two reasons:
- Mainstream pop/rock music industry has been missing a real icon for many years now. Since Michael Jackson’s last public appearance and following death, pop music has suffered an alarming decline. Tired of copycats, the public was waiting for someone able to bring quality and innovation to an industry that has sadly decided to comfortably bet on good-looking girls and stereotyped talentless boys.
- As I said, the return was unannounced and unexpected. It was the refreshing roar of a thunderstorm in the desert. Bowie’s last studio album was released 10 years ago and, except for some movie cameos and a couple of live appearances, he showed no signs of return, even declining Danny Boyle’s pledge to join the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony in London. Many of us had relentlessly coped with the idea that we were going to never ever hear new music from the White Duke again.We also know, of course, that he’s a master of changes and surprises: he proved it once again by blowing our minds with a precious music masterpiece.
Why is “Where are we now?” a music masterpiece and why did Bowie choose this as the return single? The song, the cover and title of the album, “The Next Day”, clearly bring a message from Bowie himself – who, by the way, hasn’t spoken a public word yet: even though the past gives us moments and music to cherish forever, it’s time for the next.
The real innovation, indeed, is the new album cover. To prove how strong his message to move on is, he took what is commonly considered his greatest album cover and album, “Heroes”, andchanged it. His most appealing cover turned into his ugliest, a real nightmare for any designer. Something our mindset is not used to: the public’s attention is mostly attracted by a beautiful cover, be it a book, a magazine, a dvd or a CD. Beautiful, slick covers with beautiful faces and bodies sell, no matter if you’re buying music, cereals or toilet paper.Bowie clearly doesn’t need a beautiful cover to sell, on the other hand he’s always been acclaimed for his commitment in visual arts, which makes this choice even more valiant.The “heroes” writing crossed out, a white square hiding Bowie’s face and the title at the centre; yet you can see it’s the “Heroes” cover underneath. You can see the past, remember the greatness, but you can also see that the best has been crossed out, so while it’s a way to cut with the past, it’s also a reflection on how today heroes are no longer acclaimed.
So, is this return a nostalgic one?
Undoubtedly, the song “Where are we now” has a nostalgic flavour all over it; Bowie’s crooner voice sounds slightly broken when he sings of his time in Berlin: “Had to get the train from Potzdamer platz you never knew that I could do that, just walking the dead“…It’s a sad ballad remembering old times… is it? I don’t think so. It could have been hadn’t the song changed from the second part on. Like the two “puppets” who in the video look forward and leave the past behind – they never turn backward to watch the screen with the Berlin footages, while Bowie’s perspective in the video overlooks both the screen (past) and the puppets – the song develops from the past times in Berlin to… today. Bowie asks “where are we now? The momentyou know”. Then, something happens, the music changes, the slow rhythm (slowness of past) turns into drums that beat a marching time, persisting towards the future, a wake-up call where guitars and piano dance together celebrating a triumphant victory (like the Winged Victory shown in the video).
“As long as there’s sun, as long as there’s rain, as long as there’s fire, as long as there’s me, as long as there’s you“…. that’s all that matters. Like everything that’s Bowie (and life), duality is the bottom line of the new song and noticeably the whole project; everything is opposite and merged upside down, slow to fast-paced, beautiful to ugly, past to present. A present that looks and sounds bright with the return of a 66 year-young boy who fell to earth out of nowhere to remind us that the moment is now while we get ready for the next day.