On David Bowie And The Delicate Art Of The Comeback

The clamor over the surprise announcement — on his 66th birthday — of David Bowie’s first new album in 10 years offers a valuable lesson for our current era of breathless 24/7 celebrity: you actually have to be gone for a while in order for people to legitimately miss you. posted on

Jimmy King

This is how a legend stages a comeback:

At 12 a.m. EST on the morning of January 8th — the precise moment of David Bowie’s 66th birthday — with no fanfare and in a seemingly matter-of-fact (but, clearly, carefully coordinated) fashion, the homepage of the recently redesigned davidbowie.com redirected users to a screen with links to a Vimeo video and iTunes download of a new David Bowie single (“Where Are We Now?”), as well as iTunes links for pre-orders of standard and deluxe editions of a new album (The Next Day) to be released in early March.

At 12:01 a.m. EST, Bowie’s son Duncan Jones, director of the acclaimed sci-fi film Moon, coyly tweeted:

Three more tweets immediately followed:

So... First off, its midnight in NY. That means, a HUGE HAPPY BIRTHDAY is in order to my very lovely, very talented dad!

A message directing followers to davidbowie.com and mentioning a “big surprise” came soon after on Bowie’s official Twitter and Facebook pages. Within minutes, even though it was the middle of the night for much of the U.S. and Europe, the Twittersphere was ablaze and the news started hitting the wires, blogs and news sites.

And, just like that, the world suddenly learned that David Bowie had emerged from presumed retirement to release his first new music in 10 years (and, ironically, by dint of his long absence, now perhaps his most eagerly anticipated in nearly 30).

David Bowie circa 1999 Frederic REGLAIN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

There have been famous showbiz disappearing acts before: Greta Garbo, Brian Wilson, Marlene Dietrich (who actually came out of retirement to co-star with Bowie in the film Just A Gigolo, just in case you don’t think Bowie is keen student of history). But in the more recent era, I can think of only a few others that pulled off comebacks in the manner Bowie is trying now, the most extreme example being famously reclusive film director Terence Malick, who reemerged to great acclaim after a 20-year hiatus with 1998’s The Thin Red Line. In music, though not nearly as legendary or influential as Bowie, Weezer successfully used the pent-up fan demand from a five year hiatus (during which time most of their peers fell by the wayside) to return bigger than ever with 2000’s The Green Album (a comeback they’ve since squandered by being too prolific — not to mention that awful album they did with Katy Perry Svengali Dr. Luke). Last year, Fiona Apple returned after eight years off the radar with her album The Idler Wheel… and got tons of press and glowing praise, though she cut her subsequent tour short midway through to tend to her ailing dog (which got her even more positive press). D’Angelo is dipping his toe back in the waters, doing some live performances last year and still working on his long-awaited first album since 2000’s Voodoo. Shoegaze pioneers My Bloody Valentine, whose leader Kevin Shields famously dropped out of sight not long after the release of 1991’s landmark Loveless, came out of retirement and started touring again 2008, but still there’s been no sign of the long-promised follow-up album Shields is rumored to have been tinkering with for two decades. We’re still waiting on Warren Beatty, David Chappelle, Missy Elliot and Dr. Dre.

The common thread in the above comebacks that worked? They all waited long enough that people missed them and were genuinely delighted to have them back. In the process, as an added bonus, they also garnered new generations of fans drawn by the enduring legacy created by the artists’ earlier work, unblemished by more missteps that might otherwise have brought the artists’ creative batting average below the Mendoza line.

Fiona Apple performs at Stubbs Bar-B-Q during SXSW on March 14th, 2012 in Austin, Texas. Tim Mosenfelder / Getty Images

Bowie has certainly hewed to the formula; his mysterious hiatus has long been a subject of speculation. After apparently suffering a heart attack in Germany in 2004 during a concert supporting his last album, 2003’s somewhat well-reviewed but more or less ignored Reality, Bowie cancelled the rest of his planned world tour and hasn’t performed on stage since, save for impromptu appearances at two Arcade Fire shows in New York and a David Gilmour concert at Royal Albert Hall, the last in 2006. He had a small, but memorable, role as Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film The Prestige and cameoed as himself in a 2007 episode of Ricky Gervais’ HBO show Extras. Apart from that, professionally speaking, there’s been nothing but radio silence.

While he hasn’t been a total recluse — he’s appeared at various arts and charity events with his supermodel wife Iman and has been photographed walking around New York City — he very pointedly has refused all interview requests and has seemingly been content focusing on semi-anonymous domestic bliss in SoHo and raising their young daughter Lexi, much like another rock legend who similarly retreated from the spotlight for several years and focused on fatherhood before mounting a tragically short-lived comeback in 1980: John Lennon (with whom, coincidentally, Bowie wrote and recorded the prescient perils-of-stardom song “Fame” in 1975, right before Lennon’s sabbatical).

Iman and David Bowie attend the CFDA Awards at the New York Public Library on June 6th, 2005 in New York City. Evan Agostini / Getty Images

So why mount a comeback now? He certainly doesn’t need the money. Long recognized as one of the most business-savvy rock stars ever, he’s one of the rare few who owns all his own masters and publishing, has made a fortune touring (and could easily have made more trotting out the oldies at the drop of a hat) and even, famously, pioneered a new form of financial instrument bearing his namesake, 1997’s “Bowie Bonds,” for which he received a staggering $55 million upfront payment by securitizing the presumed ensuing 10-year royalty stream from all his pre-1990 recordings, uncannily timed just before the record industry imploded (in 2007, those royalty streams reverted back to him, just as iTunes emerged in the late ’00s as a new and legitimate source of digital revenue for recording artists, or at least the ones that control their own copyrights).The official press release posted on Bowie’s site states: “David is the kind of artist who writes and performs what he wants when he wants…when he has something to say as opposed to something to sell.” Which is true, to a degree, at least — blatant cash-ins during his platinum pompadoured Let’s Dance-era aside, almost no other superstar recording artist has seemed less concerned with cravenly courting mainstream approval, and Bowie has always followed his own muse for good or ill.

But it all still seems a bit coy, as if he just randomly happened into the recording studio and there’s been no coordinated, if shrewdly low-key, master marketing plan involved. The March release of the album also happens to coincide with a prestigious museum exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum devoted not to his music, but to his role as an art, fashion and cultural icon, featuring original costumes and designs from his personal archive and an accompanying catalog in the form of a £35 elegant hardbound gold-foiled coffee-table book, David Bowie Is, complete with essays by the likes of Camille Paglia on his importance.

I’m not suggesting that his surprise announcement is merely a ploy to goose album sales (though his catalog certainly won’t be hurt by the renewed interest) or to promote the book and museum exhibit, so I certainly agree he has something to say, namely: “I’m important and still relevant” (not to mention: “less is more”). But he also very much has something to sell: his longterm legacy and the way he’s ultimately perceived by a younger generation — in other words, street cred. Image has always been everything for Bowie, and now he has another chance, on his own terms, to carefully re-craft and sell that image to a millennial generation that obviously reveres his epochal ‘70s albums, but for whom (mercifully) the relative disappointments of Tin Machine and his middling output of the ’90s and early ’00s don’t even register as blips on the radar.

It’s also possible that Bowie is playing the long game. In an era where even mere laymen talk in terms of their “personal brand” and stars real and imagined worry about fading into obscurity if they go two days without updating their Twitter, what better and more radical way to sell than by seemingly withdrawing from the game of selling altogether, long enough to get a legitimate reputation-burnishing do-over? If the last 10 years had consisted of even more unmemorable albums and oldies tours, no one save for a dwindling number of diehard boomer fans would be all that interested in yet another new release (quick, try to hum one of the new singles from the recent umpteenth Stones greatest hits package…). But after 10 years of self-imposed exile? Even people who haven’t listened to anything new by David Bowie since Let’s Dance are suddenly excited about the prospect of this forthcoming album. More importantly, they’re genuinely excited about him.

David Bowie performs during his Serious Moonlight World Tour circa 1983. Michael Putland / Getty Images

Clearly, going away long enough to make people welcome your return is a winning formula. So why don’t more stars adopt this strategy? For one, it requires total commitment — you can’t just “sort of” be gone, you really have to disappear for a while and seemingly not care, which can be a little scary. Stardom is often described as a moving train, and the fear is that if one jumps off, one might miss the chance to reboard. Which leads to the neither/nor half-measure of the overhyped pseudo-comeback: witness the quick fizzle of Madonna’s big Super Bowl-centered media push last year. It wasn’t a legitimate comeback — she’d never really been away, continually touring and inflicting desperate-to-be-current-and-provocative albums like American Life and Hard Candy upon the public during the ’00s. Neither was it the legitimate comeback’s cousin: “the return to form” (see John Travolta, Mickey Rourke, ’90s Neil Young, Robert Downey, Jr.), in which the star in question wasn’t gone, but might as well have been, re-achieving popularity after years in the wasteland by reminding the public what they loved about said star in the first place. This goodwill, of course, requires actual quality work that subsequently garners attention and can be squandered if cashed-in on too aggressively afterwards (as Travolta and Rourke managed to do). But imagine if Madonna had disappeared after 2000’s Music and then announced her comeback at the Super Bowl – even if it hadn’t been good, it still would have been the biggest thing ever. This is one of the benefits of the post-disappearance comeback: it garners disproportionate attention by dint of its mere existence; if the work is actually good, that’s gravy. I can think of countless overexposed celebrities who could stand to follow the new Bowie model — Rhianna, Katy Perry, Jennifer Aniston, Judd Apatow — and both they and the public would be much better off for it in the long term.

Then there is the subspecies of the “band reunion with original lineup.” Kiss successfully pulled it off spectacularly in 1999, touring in full makeup with original guitarist and drummer Ace Freheley and Peter Criss (which, at the time, seemed less likely than Hell freezing over), which led to Gene Simmons’ unfortunate second wind as a reality television star/mogul. Less successful was the reunited original lineup of Van Halen coming after a decade of Van Hagar albums and the trainwreck that was Van Cherone, while David Lee Roth was never really out of the public eye, dropping leaden hints for years about the pending nuptials, doing a lounge act and hosting a radio show. Similarly, the much-hyped Iggy and the Stooges reunion fizzled, mainly because Iggy had never stopped releasing (increasingly mediocre) albums and the new one underwhelmed. Same for Lou Reed’s quasi-Velvet Underground reunion with John Cale, which came after a long string of middling work by Reed. The Pixies famously re-formed in 2004 for a tour that initially had fans salivating, but have continued to perform so often that the magic of the novelty has worn off and even die-hards seem ho-hum about their shows now. Fleetwood Mac is hitting the road this year for one of their infrequent reunion tours (this time without Christine McVie), but, intriguingly, have gained a huge following among the millenials in the elapsed decade since their last tour. Their derided-at-the-time 1979 album Tusk is now widely embraced by younger listeners as a masterpiece. It remains to be seen if any of that passion might carry over to any new music from the band, however.

John McVie and Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac perform at the Honda Center on May 23rd, 2009 in Anaheim, California. Kevin Winter / Getty Images

There will always be an “I touched the hem of the garment” demand for reunited band tours, at least monetarily, but these don’t serve to burnish an artist’s legacy and, in fact, often tarnish it. Another crucial element is that the comeback not be seen as a crass cash-grab, but rather a true grass roots phenomenon borne out of love for the long-missing artist and out of respect for the work itself. What the successful comeback examples of Malick, Weezer and Apple also have in common is that the most cherished works for this younger generation of fans were not necessarily the artists’ biggest hits, but, rather, the ones that were considered commercial disappointments when they first came out (Malick’s Days of Heaven , Weezer’s Pinkerton , Apple’s When The Pawn… and Extraordinary Machine), which means the new fans found and truly fell in love with these movies and films on their own, not just because they were popular at the time or evoked Pavlovian memories of adolescence (the same phenomenon comes into play with after-the-fact reassessments of films like Office Space and The Big Lebowski , now widely viewed as classics, while bigger films that won awards in the years those were released are now almost forgotten — Shakespeare in Love, anyone?).

Is it any coincidence, then, that Bowie’s newest single harkens back explicitly in terms of its sound and lyrics not to his biggest financial successes, but to his now revered, overlooked-at-the-time, relatively uncommercial ’70s albums Low and Heroes , more or less admitting that that was his last true creative peak? He’s not playing to the boomers (like most oldies acts still putting out records way past their prime), nor is he seemingly trying too hard to keep up and be whatever the current version of cutting edge is. The present has finally caught up to his visionary past: he’s playing to the cool kids, now. Because he knows they’re the ones that hold the fate of his legacy in their hands.

David Bowie performs during his Station To Station Tour circa 1976. Evening Standard / Getty Images

Of course, at this point, it’s too early to tell if Bowie’s album is going to be amazing or merely lackluster, but it doesn’t even really matter: by bravely jumping off the treadmill of stardom, he’s at the very least made sure that more people will listen to a 66-year-old artist’s new work than ever would have otherwise, and with ears wide open, too. And, given the masterful and masterfully restrained way he’s chosen to unveil it to the world (consider, again, the fact that he was able to pull this off with no leaks or advance trial balloons whatsoever, and genuinely managed to surprise people), it might be safe to assume that he doesn’t intend to disappoint. Bowie’s son Duncan Jones followed up last night’s string of breaking Tweets that set the comeback ball in motion with two more a few minutes later:

Would be lovely if all of you could spread the word about da's new album. First in ten years, and its a good 'un! davidbowie.com/the-next-day" target="_blank">http://t.co/3kZGoxUg">davidbowie.com/the-next-day

Also, what better way to knock Taylor feckin Swift off the top of the charts! ;)

What better way, indeed.

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