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Keeping faith in the sound

Fraught with the death of David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen and George Michael, music lost its antidote to bigotry and conformity

Leonard Cohen at a Swiss jazz festival in 2008. Photo: Denis Balibouse/Reuters
Leonard Cohen at a Swiss jazz festival in 2008. Photo: Denis Balibouse/Reuters

As the pin-headed light would start to flicker, its candescence enfeebled from a blood-red to a dull maroon, I would anticipate the last moments of the magnetic tape in motion. This was one of my greatest anxieties as a child, the draining of the AA batteries that powered my Walkman. In desperation—if I was castaway for a long period on a road trip—I would gently bite the soft zinc casing to get the battery juices flowing. At that age, it felt rebellious to be resourceful that way. I had often revived David Bowie, Prince and George Michael, encased in that hulking device perpetually clipped to my person like a limp extremity.

David Bowie performing in Montreal in 2003. Photo: Shaun Best / Reuters

The death of any artist who significantly shaped or provided the soundtrack to your formative years—the triumph of Boyhood (2014)—is a strange experience. It can fracture the remembrance of that time, for this icon was the conjuror of nostalgia. The moment of realizing her mortality stuns the part of the memory that’s fermenting in the eternal repository of song. News of George Michael’s death closed out 2016, a cursed year for music’s legends. My reflex guided me to repeat plays of Faith and Freedom! ’90. Faith’s robust foot-loosening strum fastened to Michael’s pleas about indecision in matters of love made me feel recklessly cool at a time when a mildly licentious album would be labelled “parental advisory". The video channelled the sexual energy of a cultivated brute—a calculated distancing from Michael’s image in Wham!—in ripped denims, posturing the Elvis straddle in 1990s’ form. Freedom 90! was a seductive beast of a song, which doubled as an anthem. Experiencing Michael through David Fincher’s blue-toned haze—canning the hysteria of the supermodel era—in Freedom! ’90, earned my commitment. Listening to Michael was like graduating from sappy boy bands to a benign brand of adult deviance. A good few months of my early adolescence were spent listening to Faith (1987), Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 (1990) and Older (1996).

George Michael at the Wembley Stadium in London in 2007. Photo: AFP

Michael’s songs were essentially revivifications of pop music chestnuts. He cut and polished the platitudes to assume bold edges and diamantine endurance. After a certain number of years into adulthood, you wouldn’t be caught dead non-ironically busting out a Backstreet Boys number, but you’d find yourself in emphatic thrall singing, I just hope you understand that sometimes the clothes do not make the man. Michael’s songs were pop staples injected with incredible swagger.This was reinforced by his impudent streak, which was steered to rebellion on Outside (his stroke of genius on sexuality and politics). Michael’s death recalls Freddie Mercury’s early demise from HIV/AIDS. The singer covered Somebody To Love for the Freddie Mercury Tribute in 1992 at Wembley to support AIDS awareness. It was one of Michael’s most powerful live performances, and the nature of his death makes that moment that much more ineffaceable. But for the better share of his career, the pop star cautiously subordinated his “otherness"—essentially his sexual orientation—to the mainstream, unlike Mercury, Bowie and Prince, who revolutionized the semantics of pop culture with the sum of their oddities.

Also Read: A look back at the music of George Michael

The protean force of Bowie was the custodian of my right to unqualified individuality. The shock of desertion was most greatly felt when Bowie died this year. The artiste performed his immortality by adopting different, mostly otherworldly, personae through his lifetime. As an epithet for Bowie, I borrow a line from Christine and the Queens: “I’ll rule over my dead impersonations" (from iT in Chaleur Humaine, 2014). Bowie’s music and visual art flushed out the crud of conformity to reveal a defiantly fantastical expression—the stuff of sci-fi, neo-noir conceptions and mythological creatures, dark alleyways where the outliers lurk, and nightclubs that host a sordid kind of glamour. He innovated the chimerical idiom in music. As an artistic influence, Bowie was a transformative experience, a blazing constellation unto itself (Lynch was looking to cast Bowie in the Twin Peaks revival, following his cameo in Fire Walk With Me. That missed collaboration stings now). The artiste’s performance of death on his last album, Blackstar (2016), which visualized phantasms of madness and foreboding, was Bowie still playing the part.

Prince at the Hop Farm Festival in England, 2011. Photo: Stuart Wilson/Getty Images

Prince was an ally in Bowie’s realm of inventiveness and peculiarity but Prince was reaching for a transcendental sexuality above all else. I remember listening to When Doves Cry for the first time and feeling something shift in my viscera (when he moves into the coda, with his imploratory caterwauling against the frenetic guitar work, I was struck by the range of Prince’s vocal drama).

2016 was criminal, it claimed two of music’s defining forces and then some. Leonard Cohen’s death might have been timely but he was still a working musician, and released another exceptional record right before his exit. For me, the singer-songwriter formed the spiritual and literary firmament in songwriting. Like Bowie, he also signed off on his final record, You Want It Darker, conscious of his end (Hineni Hineni/I’m ready my Lord) and of a bleaker future.

Also Read: 2016: The best of Lounge

The deaths have been interpreted as being part of the ominous trajectory of 2016—with the recent political developments, and the world at large adopting a narrative that amplifies the discontents of globalization, and thus propagates exclusionary value systems as integral to maintaining the cohesion of nation states. A Tribe Called Quest’s latest album, We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service (2016), brilliantly called out the bigotry that is taking over. But the death of Malik Taylor aka Phife Dawg, and the announcement that they would be disbanding this year, felt like another rude awakening (this is not to say that 2016 has not been promising for music; speaking of highly anticipated reunions, LCD Soundsystem are back together, that’s something to look forward to).

I recently watched Patti Smith live in concert at the Bowery Ballroom. It made me nervous about losing the last woman standing from the time of revolution. Someone from the audience asked her to tell a story from the old days. To which Smith responded: “These are the old days, those were the new days." Smith was on to something, something dastardly about our reactionary times, a crippling backlash to the progressive strides which came at immeasurable cost.

The loss of these artistes is hard to reconcile, not only for their musical talents or their place in pop culture and art, or for their contribution to the larger cause of humanity, but because chapters of our lives were played out to these songs. The desperation to keep the magnetic tape rolling was to not have to edit out bits on the soundtrack to my existence, to help me “trace time".

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