I’ll be the first to admit that I’m probably not the best at using modern technology. A couple of months ago I subscribed to Google's Music service (mainly because I refuse to use anything Apple and their iVirus app store thing setup), but even now, I have so far only bothered to upload a couple of albums. The first was an exercise album called ‘Pump It Up Until You Have a Stroke’ or something like that, which I only got to make my cardio sessions a bit more bearable (yes it doesn’t work – nothing does. And that's why I don't even consider cardio sessions) and the second was a compilation of David Bowie’s greatest hits, for obvious reasons.
I’m not generally one for having musical heroes, but David Bowie would be about as close as you’d get for me. Both his music and his presence permeated and punctuated my awkward adolescent years. I remember watching him on ‘Top of the Pops’ for the first time, and being highly excited while at the same time, somewhat confused by what I was seeing.
I remember once, sitting in a music lesson listening to a song called Time from his Aladdin Sane album (his sixth album) and wondering why when last week I was listening to Mozart and this week I was listening to the words ‘Flexing like a whore, he fell wanking to the floor’ (and how this was even allowed in school). And even today, I can’t listen to the song Changes without being transported to a time, a place and an emotional state that has long since gone.
When David Bowie died this week, it soon became pretty clear that I was far from alone in my feelings. I can’t really recall the level of media coverage and public grief and shock over the death of someone from the music world since Freddie Mercury, John Lennon or Elvis passed away. But even then, not everyone was feeling shock, grief or indeed anything at all...
When I met up with friends the morning Bowie died, it became apparent that at least one of the younger members of the group had never even heard of him or his music.
I should have been amazed, but really, I wasn’t. In my old age, I’ve become more and more accustomed to talking about someone or something to young people that I thought was all a part of our shared knowledge or cultural experience, only to find that it isn’t. And the excuse given is always the same…”It was before my time”.
This is of course, nonsense.
Most of the world’s history is ‘before my time’, as it is yours. People like Charlie Chaplin, Stanley Matthews, Mario Lanza, Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill, Lord Nelson, Adolf Hitler, William Shakespeare… I could go on forever… made their impact on the world even before my time. But that doesn’t mean I have no knowledge of who they were or what they did. In fact we live in an age where it has never been easier to find out what happened ‘before my time’. Details of the lives and achievements of anyone of note are all online at the click of a mouse. And yet paradoxically, I think that’s precisely the reason why people seem to know less and less.
Modern technology and communications have the potential to open up the world for us along with everything in it, but quite often it has the opposite effect of shutting it all out.
When I was growing up there was no internet, just three TV channels and a handful of radio stations that anyone ever listened to. Add to that the fact there were pretty much the same number of newspapers as there are today and as a result, our ‘common experience’ was pretty substantial. We all watched the same TV programmes, listened to the same radio shows and read the same newspapers. And because these media outlets were few in numbers, their output had to be both varied and wide ranging. So we were all exposed to a wide variety of material, and the same material. The result was a breadth (rather than depth) of knowledge which most people shared to some degree.
Contrast that situation with today. It’s possible to squeeze our viewing, browsing and listening down very narrow personalised channels. That can be a positive thing, in that it enables us to investigate or immerse ourselves in an interest or passion as deeply as we like, but there’s a strong negative potential too. It makes building a breadth of knowledge something we need to do consciously, rather than something that happens in the normal order of things. And if you’re not pre-disposed to build that knowledge, it’s never going to happen for you. It’s perfectly possible to live in your own highly personalised informational and cultural world, and side-step ‘common knowledge’ altogether. This is how some young whippersnapper can possibly reach the age of 22 having never even encountered the likes of David Bowie.
Now in the grand old scheme of things, it might not matter much that you don’t know who David Bowie is, but it doesn’t just stop there. It’s possible for us to block out anything that doesn’t appear of immediate interest or personal concern to us. And if we reach a point where everyone is living inside their own ultra-narrow informational and cultural bubble, that can’t be a good thing, can it? It’s ironic that something like the internet, that carries so much potential to educate, is, in reality, delivering a completely new type of ignorance for us.
But that’s enough of that nostalgic negativity... Let’s look at a couple of things that David Bowie can teach us that might help in our own quest for personal success and fulfilment?
The first has to be that it’s okay to be different. More than that, being different brings with it huge advantages and disproportionate rewards. Do what everyone else does and you get what everyone else gets – which isn’t usually very much! There are thousands of highly talented singers and musicians in the world who are barely scraping a living. Bowie dared to be different, and as a result, stood out from the crowd. Combine talent with a unique twist and you have a winning combination.
The second ‘secret’ he tapped into was the benefits of adapting, evolving and changing. Some success can be had by finding a winning approach and sticking to it, but to really hit the heights you need to keep improving yourself, changing and adapting what you offer in line with how the world is changing. Bowie, of course, went one better than this by bringing about the changes which others would adopt and follow in an attempt to keep up. For most of us though, just keeping up will yield sufficient rewards.
Standing still is impossible. If you stand still, you go backwards as the world moves forward under your feet.
I’ll leave you with a line from the aforementioned Changes’ from Bowie’s Hunky Dory album...
“And every time I thought I’d got it made it seemed the taste was not so sweet.”
Maybe there’s a clue there to what drove him to keep developing, evolving and pressing on. It carries some resonance with me, and perhaps it should with you too.
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