Monday, January 11, 2016

David Bowie and Reinvention

A couple bloggers at Psychology Today offered their personal perspectives on how the work of the late David Bowie affected them. I'll share my own thoughts. My first exposure to David Bowie was as a child. I had read a brief passage about David Bowie in one of the Colliers Yearbooks that my parents subscribed to, and found the description of his work and the photo of him taken during his Ziggy Stardust phase to be intriguing. Later I would see him sing a song on national television with Bing Crosby. However, what was most significant for me was the first album of his that I ever purchased: Lodger, which was the last of the Low/Heroes/Lodger trilogy of the late 1970s. That album would be significant as it introduced my 13-year-old ears to the likes of Brian Eno, Adrian Belew, and a little later Robert Fripp - artists whose work I quickly grew to appreciate. His appearance on one of SNL's fifth season episodes (performing with him would be Klaus Nomi I would later learn) was unlike anything else I'd seen. As an artist, Bowie was quite adept at challenging gender role expectations and assumptions regarding sexual orientation that at the time was quite revolutionary.

What I came to appreciate most about Bowie as a performer was his willingness to reinvent himself on a regular basis, and to do so not just in terms of stage appearance, but in terms of trying out different musical styles - a quality that characterized his work up until his final recording (which caught my attention in large part due to the jazz musicians who accompanied him). As I reflect on how I have developed as a professional, I would have to say that a certain amount of reinvention is not only necessary but desirable. Reinvention means taking risks, opening oneself to new experiences. In my particular domain, doing so entails mastering new theoretical models and methodological skill sets. The primary benefit is obvious: increased versatility, which can help one navigate a very difficult job market - especially if one is intending to make a living in an academic environment. The potential pitfall is the risk of appearing unfocused. Bowie, for all his reinventions, as an artist came across as consistent. His experiments with R&B or German progressive rock in the 1970s were an extension of his earlier work, and his overtly pop recordings in the early to mid 1980s employed the lessons learned from the late 1970s, and so on. As a professional, one should maintain focus on a particular theme or set of related themes while remaining open to new ways of addressing those particular interests and remaining cognizant of available resources for research. Bowie rarely appeared to stagnate during his lengthy career. Any of us as researchers or educators can use Bowie's example as a vehicle for assessing how our own careers are progressing. Is there a new methodological advance or a new (or new to you) area of inquiry that would add a new dimension to your own research program? Is there a new pedagogical approach that you are thinking about trying out? Is there some new opportunity or challenge that you seek? Those are certainly questions I periodically ask myself, especially during those slightly quieter intervals in between semesters. I would like to think my CV reflects the outcome of those periods of reflection. Hopefully yours will as well.

I don't want to overstate the influence of a pop musician on my own professional work. Clearly, there are others - in particular those who mentored me, and those whose theoretical and experimental research that I have read over the years - who have had considerably more influence on me. Many of those individuals have themselves undergone a reinvention or two. What I do think is fair to state is that at some point during my formative years, some pop performers who were particularly adventurous ended up inspiring me. The experience of watching others try - sometimes successfully, sometimes not - to do something a bit out of their comfort zone encouraged me to do likewise. Later in life, I would continue to draw on that experience as I began to develop as a professional, and continue to draw on that experience to this day.

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