the meaninglessness of popularity


The woman at the anchor desk seemed to be struggling with the concept of David Bowie. Or, I should say, with the concept of why she was talking about David Bowie. She was riffling through her notecards trying to find a clue as she interviewed the poor guy who was there to explain why Bowie is important. David Bowie only had two number one singles, she read, never had a number one album, and oh, he collaborated with some famous people like John Lennon and Trent Reznor (at first she said “Trent Resnick” until, I guess, someone muttered into her earpiece). Obviously Bowie Meant Something, otherwise why is a news channel covering his death, but since it couldn’t be quantified by number of hits or Grammy Awards, it was difficult to convey what he meant, at least in the context of the news cycle. And it struck me, as it does often, how valueless these standards of measurement are.

Bowie was more than “popular’ or “famous.” Anyone can be popular and famous for a while and wind up meaning nothing. I’m working on a project now involving the history of a record label and lists are being tossed around of the songs that got the highest on one chart or another, but time has judged a lot of those hits harshly, while songs and artists that got lost commercially are, in retrospect, remembered more fondly, made more of a lasting imprint. The label isn’t Capitol or Warner Brothers, but let’s say it is. Helen Reddy and Christopher Cross were super-popular artists for a while on those labels, and is there anyone who thinks either of them matters? Massive Popularity is often bestowed on the truly worthy, The Beatles and The Stones, Elvis, Michael Jackson, Taylor Swift and Adele, but it has been known to strike whimsically and inexplicably.

David Bowie never had a multi-platinum album in his entire career, while Celine Dion and Michael Bolton had many. That’s just how things break sometimes, and there’s no reason to get in a twist about it: all it means is that for a moment, the planets aligned in some wacky way and a few million people were seduced into spending ten bucks on something that gave them temporary pleasure. It’s always been like that: in the 1950s, Pat Boone and Connie Francis sold skillions of 45s, Carl Perkins and Wanda Jackson sold far, far fewer, but which artists made music that anyone is still listening to? Which are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and which don’t have a prayer? Paul Anka wrote a whole lot of hits, but it’s Bert Berns who’s being inducted into the Hall of Fame this year.

Schlock wins for a while, and can be inspired or touched by greatness (the voice of Karen Carpenter, say), but there isn’t much schlock that has adhesive power. Popular schlock of any era winds up in thrift store bins, and you can imagine the process: “What was I thinking?,” and then the sad stacking of the vinyl on the store counter. It’s like a musical walk of shame: I know, I was an idiot, but I thought in a weak moment that this spoke to me. It was the syrupy saxophone, it was that key modulation, I was vulnerable. That’s not how people adopted Diamond Dogs or Aladdin Sane or Low. I think about Greta Gerwig romping down the street to “Modern Love” in Frances Ha, or Emma Watson in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, ecstatic as “Heroes” plays. That’s not momentary infatuation, something that you outgrow or become embarrassed about, that’s true love. The woman at the anchor desk was trying to desconstruct chart positions, trying to make some sense of what went beyond record sales. For so many people I know, Bowie was nothing like a fling, he was the whole world.

One response to “the meaninglessness of popularity

  1. I am not a great Bowie music fan but he was so clearly special to so many people. I think the people who are beyond “popular” always are really smart and have a vision of the world beyond themselves. I had always felt Bowie was too white and then he went and married Iman and I had to rethink. Another mark of a smart person, always willing to reconsider. What has touched me the most after he dies was Yoko’s post about how he took care of Sean after John died. 35 years later and I am still rocked by that, good people leave their mark on us.

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