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The MOJO review: BowieStyle by Paytress & Pafford

“Mr. Oscar Wilde said that in matters of great importance, it wasn’t sincerity that mattered, but style. And this to me means that he wasn’t truly a stylist. Because to me sincerity and style are the same thing. Just as in literature, style is not a question of raining down encrusted, bejewelled passages on rather banal material. Style in literature is removing all the words which don’t say what you really mean. And in the same way in style, in life, you have to find some way of leaving nothing of yourself to doubt, so that everybody does understand who you are, what you are, what you mean by what you say.” — Quentin Crisp

Coming up, one of the more earnest assessments of the BowieStyle book, which is ironic seeing as by the time the review was published both Mark Paytress and I were working in-house at MOJO…

Not very Mojo, is it, style? Per se, it’s about surface, the look not the substance.

In fact, style could well be the absolute epitome of of what really doesn’t matter about any given era. But then Mark Paytress and Steve Pafford do avoid even a solitary mention of “semiotics” – always a plus – and he has researched and thought truckloads about the world’s favourite art-rocking elder statesman and multiple metamorphosier.

The author’s plan is three-pronged: a) lots of lovely pictures, b) a style-related biographical narrative, and c) interspersed chapterettes on diverse side issues (most enjoyably, a full-page piss-take of Bowie’s inability to give up smoking).

If anything, it’s b) that slows it down. Where a full-on analytical approach might have leapt hither and thither across the years and radically redrawn the Bowie map, chronology renders inevitable a degree of stolid plod through what everyone already knows.

Even so, over-familiar notions do get a shaking. The real drama of Bowie’s fundamental challenge to everyone’s identity problems (via the fantasy of stardom) emerges strongly and rather sadly in quotes such as, “Sometimes I don’t feel like a person at all., I’m just a collection of other people’s ideas” and “I can’t stand the premise of going on (stage) in jeans and being real – that’s impossible.”

There’s the nub. Bowie raised questions of artificiality both intelligently and whole-heartedly so that, at his best, he wasn’t about style, he was about life and what he did was art. Which is better and more scary than style.

Phil Sutcliffe

First published: Mojo, June 2000



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