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Music

The David Bowie song co-written by an internet competition winner

@TomTaylorFO

When people describe David Bowie as being ahead of his time, they usually mean in an artistic sense. The truth is, he was one step ahead of us in every way when it comes to seeing how culture would map out. 

In a famous interview with the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman back in 1999, Bowie mend-bendingly predicted how he expected the internet to unfurl with inexplicable accuracy. Given that this was only a year after the eminent Nobel Prize winner in Economic Sciences, Paul Krugman, had stated: “By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s,” Bowie’s prescience on the matter is almost spooky. 

However, it was also borne from an understandable place. The science of the internet was brand spanking new, thus, many intellectuals were thrown off course by existing knowledge that no longer fit. Bowie, on the other hand, knew the way culture worked and he was ready to do a sort of pioneering experiment of his own to look into it. 

The singer set up his own BowieNet fan forum in September 1998. As biographer Chris O’Leary writes: “This was really the first attempt to create an internet community built around an artist. And it was very successful too.” In what might now be considered an attempt to ‘drive up engagement’ by a marketing department, Bowie decided to use his new-fangled forum to craft the world’s first “cyber song”. 

Fans were encouraged to send over lyrics to help Bowie co-write the song ‘What’s Really Happening’. The competition itself also proved to be a pioneering smash hit, attracting proto-viral figures of a whopping 80,000 submissions. There were so many that Bowie simply didn’t have the time to sift through all of them himself, and while he conceded that “there were a lot of potty ones,” a fan co-written track did eventually end up on one of his records.

As the competition promotion listed: “Bowie will pick the winner (from a list of finalists chosen by the public), who will not only receive co-writer credit, but a $15,000 publishing contract compliments of international music publisher Bug Music, a trip to New York to be present when the song is recorded and a three-year subscription to Rolling Stone, along with gift certificates from CDNow and BarnesandNoble.com The grand prize winner will also receive a free one-year subscription to BowieNet, the music industry’s newest Internet Service Provider.”

That fine selection of prizes went to Alex Strong whose first verse reads: “Grown inside a plastic box / Micro thoughts and safety locks / Hearts become outdated clocks / Tickin’ in your mind.” Guitarist Reeves Gabrels even recently mentioned on Twitter, “I had been upset when DB announced he wanted to hold a website competition for writing the first verse. As it turns out, Alex Grant’s lyrics are excellent. Maybe better than DB’s second verse.”

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Not that Bowie would’ve minded being outdone, in fact, he would’ve loved it. The aim of the track was to show how the internet could be used and he achieved that with aplomb. According to Bowie, “The most gratifying part of the evening for me was being able to encourage Alex and his pal Larry to sing on the song that he, Alex, had written. It was a cool way to finish the session off.”

The song might not be his opus, but it ensured that the album …Hours remained avant-garde in the truest sense of the word. After all, as Bowie once said: “Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming.”