Monday, January 18, 2016

David Bowie's Final Descent

by Christopher Doll

The incomparable David Bowie died of liver cancer on January 10, 2016. His twenty-fifth and final studio album, (or Blackstar), was released two days prior on January 8, Bowie’s 69th birthday. Reading the deluge of posthumous tributes in the popular press—mostly inventories of the parade of personas Bowie created—I felt inspired to share my own brief tribute to one of my favorite musicians, a tribute focusing not on characters but on music, and in particular on the ten-minute title track (and lead single) of Bowie’s final album.



If anything, “Blackstar” is about binaries. Indeed, it is really two songs in one: the first opens and closes the track, lasting about seven minutes in total, while the second fills the three-minute middle. The first song comprises a nightmarish mix of electronic and acoustic instruments, a highly processed chant-like Phrygian melody set against Andalusian harmonies resembling those of Flamenco guitar music (BM, CM, DM, Em, Am, with a tonal center of B), and very few (but repeating) words of a vaguely religious, ritualistic nature: “In the villa of Ormen, stands a solitary candle…On the day of execution, only women kneel and smile,” and the refrain “In (at) the center of it all, your eyes.” When we first hear this material, it takes the form of skittish electronica, but the reprise at the end establishes a rhythmic opposition to its earlier incarnation: staged with a different tempo and groove, the final section is relaxed rock, as if conveying consignment to a gloomy fate.

The closing rock rhythm is actually a carryover from the track’s middle section—the “second song”—which presents the cryptic titular refrain “I’m a Blackstar.” This middle section divides into its own competing, alternating segments: a relatively happy, almost corny, upbeat pop segment (“Something happened on the day he died…”), and an edgier, more dissonant, jazzy segment (“I can’t answer why…”). This light/dark binary occupies not merely the middle but the heart of the track—thematically, vocally, visually. In Johan Renck’s music video, Bowie begins the pop segment in a reverent stance, his hands clasped as if in prayer and his head cast upward toward his creator, who seems responsible for the sublime light penetrating the dark interior of the triangular frame. The vocal melody leaps into Bowie’s highest non-falsetto register here, barely squeaking out a high F# on “spirit” (4:46) and later the slightly lower E# on “day” (6:19). Yet this saccharine performance quickly turns nasty in the jazzy segment, where Bowie’s face contorts to express sarcasm and fury, his hands thrusted downward to his gut and outward to the targeted viewer. Bowie now sings an incessant, slightly flat B, introduced as a bitter dissonance jabbing at the root C and seventh B-flat of a C7 chord; Bowie’s blue B fits more comfortably with the next chord, C#7 (as its seventh).






The jazzy segment’s oscillation between C7 and C#7 serves as a microcosm for a much larger C-versus-C# binary. The natural C, acting as scale degree flat-2 against tonal center B, is a defining dark feature of the Phrygian chant-melody of the opening and closing sections (i.e., most of the track), while its rival, the lighter C#, appears first in the middle section’s pop segment as scale degree 5 of a new tonal center, F#. Vocally, C# is the pop melody’s first main note, approached by none other than its C(B#) adversary: “[C(B#)] Some- [C#] -thing [C#] hap- [C#] -pened [C#] on [C#] the [D-D#] day [C#] he [C#] died.” Instrumentally, C# is the constant goal in the pop bass line, in the form of a chromatic lamento descent: F#-E#-E-D#-D-C#. This familiar Baroque figure—which I call the chromatic “droop”[1]—might possibly be thought to form yet another binary, its morose associations pitted against the upbeatness of its immediate setting. But I myself don’t hear it that way. Drooping lines do occasionally signify laments in popular music: the one in Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film),” for instance, mourns the dead protagonists in Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet. Yet droops in popular music are quite connotatively flexible, and appear just as often in lighter fare. Indeed, I hear “Blackstar” shifting at this moment toward a lighter pop style largely because of the droop, and because of a particular connection my ear makes here to Frankie Valli’s 1967 pop hit “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” (written by Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio); both Valli’s and Bowie’s tracks stack an instrumental droop underneath a vocal melody that emphasizes scale degrees 5 and M6: compare Bowie’s “[flat-5(#4)] Some- [5] -thing [5] hap- [5] -pened [5] on [5] the [#5-M6] day [5] he [5] died” to Valli’s “[5] You’re [5] just [5] too [M6] good [5] to [M3] be [5-M6] true, [5] can’t [5] take [5] my [M6] eyes [5] off [M3] of [5-M6] you.” Bowie’s refrain in the outer sections of “Blackstar”—“In (at) the center of it all, your eyes”—offers another connection to Valli’s “Eyes” song. (And even though Valli’s “eyes” are his own, whereas Bowie’s are someone else’s, the musical connection to Valli does occur “In (at) the center of it all,” which is to say the middle of “Blackstar.”) Also apropos here is the potential connection to Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” (1994), the verses of which use a nearly identical instrumental descent to support a similar stellar conundrum, and which start melodically with a reference to “eyes” hovering on scale degrees 5 and M6: “[M3] In [5] my [M6] eyes, [M3] in- [5] dis- [M6] -posed…[2]

Did Bowie consciously build these binaries and bridges to other songs? Probably not. Did he build them intentionally? Maybe. At any rate, there’s nothing stopping us listeners from searching for meanings in the music; indeed, with all its deliberate mystery, “Blackstar” would seem to incite such searching.[3] But whatever meanings were intended, or whatever meanings we as listeners happen to find, the most important thing to remember is that the music is meaningful.[4] David Bowie wasn’t just a series of wardrobe and persona changes; he was a world-class musician. Rather than focusing on his fashion, we should be celebrating the underlying cause of his celebrity—his meaningful music. If it weren’t for that, the rest really wouldn’t matter that much.



Christopher Doll is Chancellor’s Scholar and Associate Professor at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. He completed his PhD with Distinction at Columbia University in 2007, and has since then taught in the Music Department of the Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He has published widely and given many talks across the United States and Europe; his 2014 lecture at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum can be viewed here.





[1] The droop is one of many harmonic schemas with silly, and hopefully memorable, names identified in my forthcoming book Hearing Harmony: Towards a Tonal Theory for the Rock Era (University of Michigan Press).
[2] Soundgarden’s instrumental descent is only nearly identical because their second chord (on “indisposed”) presents m3 instead of the leading tone.
[3] We should feel no shame, then, in making even more connections to earlier tracks. Bowie himself uses an instrumental chromatic droop in the choruses of his 1999 “Something in the Air,” the eponymous refrain of which might heard be as echoed in the prominent “Blackstar” lyric “Something happened on the day he died.” In the first half of “Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud” (originally the B-side of his 1969 single “Space Oddity”), Bowie’s acoustic guitar droops below the lyric “and the hangman plays the mandolin before he goes to sleep”—an image in sync with the “Blackstar” line “On the day of execution…
[4] In the postscript to his recent New Yorker article, Ben Greenman concludes that the Blackstar album “struggles to articulate the human struggle to articulate.”

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