No-Bowie Can Compare

Elizabeth Edwards on the sound and vision behind her class on David Bowie

The Contemporary Studies programme out of King’s College has chosen to focus their third year course, CTMP 3415: Contemporary Aesthetic and Critical Thought, around David Bowie, the idol of the 1970s and ‘80s. Dr. Elizabeth Edwards, Director of the Contemporary Studies Programme and instructor of the course, sat down with Gazette reporter William Coney to talk about this course:

Gazette: Why David Bowie?

Dr. Elizabeth Edwards: There’s few [people] who’ve lasted as long as he has, and there are few who I’ve been as big a fan of since 1972. My first serious boyfriend gave me a copy of The Man Who Sold The World and I was blown away. He’s kind of a representative figure […] and as a cultural studies course, we can use him as a means to open up certain methods or theories of cultural studies, so it has a double end.

When I saw the line-ups at the 2013 David Bowie is retrospective which was touring from the Victoria and Albert Museum when it was in Toronto, you went from beyond thinking, “I was a personal fan,” to thinking that, “No, he was a major artist and a major body of works of art.” This was when he moved out of the ephemera of the pop world, and something to be considered as a major artist. […] In a way it’s so exciting because the archive is so rich. I was surprised with the amount of stuff out there, and the record is so complete. Part of this is about the simulacrum, the creation of the alternate world within media. I had never really paid that much attention to early Ziggy Stardust (David Bowie’s persona in the early 70s) before preparing for this class, and now I’m completely smitten. It’s such a strange time warp, which is now there in this media record, which isn’t there in other periods of study.

G: You didn’t have any difficulty in getting this approved by the other faculty members in the programme?

EE: Yeah, I did [laughs]. Most of them didn’t know that much about David Bowie, and didn’t follow his career as much, so they didn’t understand the significance of him. One was very opposed, on the grounds that he is ersatz, fake, a Nazi — there was a terrible episode in the 1970s where he gave Nazi salutes and was talking about Nazi aesthetics. I see some deep ambivalences and ambiguities in there, and the complications and politics make him even more interesting to me. I see him as a figure of the zeitgeist, of a spirit of the time. Most people might want to repudiate it, but it is a part of the spirit of the times, there it is.

G: Are you anticipating similar difficulties in the instruction of the course?

Dr. Edwards: I just had my first class last night (Sept. 10), and yeah, there is some difficulty with the fact that to some degree, there are students who know Bowie better than I [laughs] and some students who don’t know him well. As an additional challenge, there is the challenge of dealing with him, as the grandmaster of sound and vision, in putting together the whole total theatre effect, and I need to work on putting my own sound and vision into the work. I was surprised in the massive scholarly resources available, though, so there weren’t any difficulties in presenting the work seriously.

G: How does this class fit in within the rest of the Contemporary Studies Programme?

Dr. Edwards: Contemporary Studies is divided up into three main curriculums: political theory, science studies and aesthetics. This is a special topic course in aesthetics, so this is an elective/option course. It’s an academically rigorous class, but also terribly fun.

G: What is your favourite David Bowie Song? Why?

Dr. Edwards: One of my motivations was I really like the album The Next Day, and it’s going through my head at the moment because I’ve been listening to it a lot, and to think I’d be saying in 2015 that I would still be thinking that, “Oh, he’s uncovering all new ground.” If I had to name one, it’d be Ashes to Ashes, but then that’s a complex answer: the reason it’s so potent is how it references his early career.

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William Coney