During his lifetime, David Bowie very rarely looked backwards and he never dwelled on his success. Every new invention or addition to his life was greeted with the same fascinated curiosity and willingness to embed it into his life. The same can be said for the introduction of that wondrous web of ugliness, otherwise known as the internet.
Bowie was an actor, a musician and a performer but, as well as all that, he was also a pioneer of all things online. BowieNet, launched on September 1st, 1998, was the Starman’s very own Internet Service Provider. The singer, with his expert vision, saw the blossoming of the internet as something precious and powerful at the same time. Considering he’d set up his own BowieNet as a private ISP the previous year, he was well placed to offer a clear opinion on the new-fangled technology.
In this clip from 1999, the Thin White Duke talks about the internet within the music industry and suggests: “The potential of what the Internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable.”
Over 20 years later and it is hard to argue with the man. During the interview with Jeremy Paxman, a renowned journalist for the BBC, Bowie reflects on what the internet could do for the music industry in both potentially beneficial and harmful ways. Despite the pessimism, the conversation begins with Bowie saying that if he was starting out in 1999 he would be “a fan and collector of records”.
“I wanted to be a musician because it seemed rebellious,” Bowie said. “It seemed subversive. It felt like one could affect change to a form. It was very hard to hear music when I was younger. When I was really young you had to tune in AM/FM radio to hear the American records. There was no MTV and there wasn’t wall-to-wall blanket music. So, therefore, it had a kind of call to arms kind of feeling to it. ‘This is the thing that will change things’.”
He continued, musing on the idea of the rock star: “This is a dead dodgy occupation to have. It still produced signs of horror from people if you said ‘I’m in rock and roll’. Now, it’s a career opportunity.” It was a sign of things to come as during the next two decades as Bowie would begin to move away from the record industry and focus on the creation of his art. But there was one bastion of subversion left, aside from rock and roll, the internet.
“The internet is now, it carries the flag of being subversive and possibly rebellious. Chaotic, nihilistic,” as Bowie’s interrupted by a snort of derision from his interviewer, the singer puts him right, “Oh yes it is!”. During the interview, Bowie also talks about the “demystification between the audience and the artist” which he thinks is one of the internet’s most powerful tools. Considering he’d set up his own bowie.net as a private ISP the previous year, he was well placed to agree.
He goes on to not only predict the state of the internet in the future but also accurately depicts the musical culture too, in turn showing that Bowie’s foresight was 20/20. As he suggests no one band dominated the ’90s (though Oasis may disagree), he reflects on the genre-specific attitude of listeners and the cut and paste culture that was about to follow: “It’s becoming more and more about the audience.”
As he suggests the “vocabulary of rock is too well known” and that it no longer acts as a conveyor of rebellion, Bowie also suggests the internet has taken its place, “I find that a terribly exciting area. So from my standpoint, being an artist, I like to see what the new construction is between artist and audience. There is a breakdown, personified I think by the rave culture of the last few years—where the audience is at least as important as whoever is playing. It’s almost like the artist is to accompany the audience.”
As Paxman continues to suggest the claims made around the internet are being wildly exaggerated, Bowie makes the respected journalist look a little silly with his responses. “I don’t think we’ve even seen the tip of the iceberg. I think the potential of what the Internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable. I think we’re actually on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying.” Paxman responds, “it’s just a tool though isn’t it?”
Possessing all the dynamic vision that gave conspiracy theories around his otherworldliness possible extra-terrestrial, a degree of gravity, the singer responds: “No. It’s an alien life form [laughing], is there life on Mars? Yes, it’s just landed here. The actual context and state of content is going to be so different to anything we envisage at the moment. Where the interplay between the user and the provider will be so in simpatico it’s going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about. It’s happening in every form.”
“That grey space in the middle is what the 21st century is going to be about.” Damn, just when you thought you couldn’t like David Bowie any more he goes ahead and becomes a psychic too. Watch below the full clip as David Bowie predicts the pitfalls of the internet back in 1999.