How David Bowie Predicted Internet Fandom
In a 2000 interview with the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman, David Bowie argued that people had yet to even see the “tip of the iceberg” of what the Internet was going to do for society. “It’s an alien life form,” he said, laughing. “Is there life on Mars? Yes -- it’s just landed here!” But Bowie’s predictions for what the web could be were grounded in something that couldn’t be further from sci-fi: how humans connect to art.
Bowie went on to speak about a new kind of relationship between singer and fan, connecting that relationship to rave culture at the time, in which, he said, the fans on the floor were as important as the band on the stage. “The idea that the piece of work is not finished until the audience comes to it and adds their new interpretation and what the piece of art is about is the gray space in the middle,” he says, referencing Marcel Duchamp’s ideas on art. “That gray space in the middle is what the 21st century is going to be about.”
The Tumblr manifestos, lip-synch Vines, and memes all in the name of music and art float in this “middle space.” It’s a space that many pop artists despise, a place for the meaning and presentation of their work to get twisted by the public, but Bowie was excited by its impending arrival. Because like his beloved Duchamp, Bowie cared what the public thought of him, anticipating how critics would label whatever he was doing at the time so he could reinvent himself to exist outside of the mainstream. “The most interesting thing for an artist is to pick through the debris of a culture, to look at what's been forgotten or not really taken seriously,” he said in an interview in 1998. “The most imprisoning thing is to feel myself being pigeonholed.”
David Bowie picked up bits of cultural detritus and made them cool (again), pulling from different cultures for style and sound, keeping an eye on critics to see if he could get away with it all, he thrived on that “gray space” he anticipated with the web. He thrived on collaboration, from his musical work with Brian Eno to Trent Reznor to Freddie Mercury, and was as much a fan of the musicians he worked with as he was a peer. He was a culture vulture in constant search of new sights and sounds to incorporate into his persona, much in the same way people find and enjoy culture online today. It’s easy to look at Bowie’s 2000 comments and say, He predicted the Internet! But Bowie and his work were always invested in stretching boundaries for music, for the role of the pop star, and for how the audience can help define or build on that work. The Internet just caught up to him.