Self-reference is a dangerous game in the world of music. Rockstars have typically never been shy about their rockstardom — in fact, the concept of rockstar as self-appraised sacred cow has been around since the genesis of the rock genre; even before Bo Diddley asked the crowd, “Who do you love?” (and provided as laundry list of reasons to do so).
Referring to oneself on record, however, is a different story. It’s not an affair to be taken lightly, and those who do stumble into it without being fully aware of the repercussions often find themselves stuck at the bottom of a hole they’ve dug themselves. This isn’t just gloating or poor sportsmanship, which makes for equal amounts of fans and despisers. It’s not hubris, which offers a tragic (but often quick) end to the hero of many Greek dramas. Self-reference almost never works out well, and the benefits (a track or record that flows smoothly within the greater context of a career) are almost always outweighed by the risks (becoming the butt of a joke, overestimating your own self-worth at your own expense, making your own career seem much less monumental than it really is). You’ll find that most figures in music don’t even bother with it; a rather smart exercise in risk management and long-term self-preservation.
You can think of a music career as an expensive bottle of wine. When the cask is tapped and the bottle is filled, you’ve got, at best, a scant idea of how it might taste. But the best wines, like the best music careers, get better with age. The catch is, even the best vinters and sommeliers can’t tell you the best time to cash in your bets and tip your bottoms up. Self-reference on an album (or as an album) is like pulling the cork on the one and only bottle you’ve got from that vintage. Do it too early and you’ve got a glass of wine that is, however tasty and inebriating, not as good as it could have been.
Most artists pull the self-reference card with a “Greatest Hits” compilation, usually years after their cultural significance has faded, or in some lucky cases, when pop culture aftershocks allow them to briefly resurface as relevant (i.e., Talking Heads). Bands that release their greatest hits mid-career are throwing in the towel; like Radiohead, whose 2008 “best of” compilation more or less marked when I stopped paying attention.
Even bands like the Beatles were susceptible to the pitfalls, as evidenced on White Album track “Glass Onion”, wherein Lennon makes reference to several previous tracks in the Fab Four oeuvre in an attempt to troll lyrics-obsessed press and fans. Even at this, the height of their creative streak, the track sends mixed signals, sounding simultaneously goofy and spiteful. On the album prior, they attempted to directly quote themselves musically in outro section the unofficial Summer of Love anthem “All You Need is Love”, which coincidentally is #2 on my list of “Beatles Songs I Hate”. (#1 is “Yellow Submarine”, not because of self-reference but just because it’s a terrible tune.)
Of course, now all eyes turn to David Bowie, who has broken a decade-long silence by releasing a new album at an age when most folks would be happy to retire to the Bahamas and sip on rum drinks topped by festive miniature umbrellas. Then again, Bowie’s more or less already done the “retirement” thing — twice actually: the first after having fled the cocaine-lined streets of 1970′s Los Angeles for Berlin, and the second after suffering a heart attack in 2004.
That first relocation gave birth to the now-legendary “Berlin trilogy” of albums (Low, Heroes and Lodger) and the subsequent album, Scary Monsters, had Bowie attempting self-reference in the lead single, “Ashes to Ashes”, singing, “We know Major Tom’s a junkie / strung out on heaven’s high / hitting an all-time low.” In the context of any other career, the reference could have been too soon, but with the chameleonic nature of Bowie’s career and the drastic change in sound he’d undergone immediately prior, the reference to early hit “Space Oddity” worked rather well, garnering good press and setting the stage for the poppy hits that would follow in the ’80s.
Now, after having been out of the spotlight completely since 2006, Bowie is at it again with the self-reference, and in even more blunt means that lyrically. The first thing you’ll notice about The Next Day is the album art. David Bowie, being the performer and showman that he is, never strays from the formula of “stylized artist photo + album title = cover art,” but the art for his newest album might as well add a footnote: “Be sure to piss on/herald the past.” The cover features the famous Roquairol pose photo from the cover of Heroes, only with that album’s name crossed out. In its place, a gaudy white square is super-imposed with “The Next Day” typed in a way that takes all the utilitarian glamour out of sans serif fonts. It seriously looks like someone designed it in MS Paint with a bad hangover.
That said, it’s perfect. Really.
By taking the pomp and circumstance out of self-reference, the discussion opens up to self-deprecation and humor — Bowie’s albums usually only have these concepts in the darkest, blackest senses of the words. But then the music, pulls another double back by sounding like a mix between the artist’s back catalog and his more contemporary material. “If You Can See Me” sounds like a lost cut from 1995′s Outside, complete with pitch manipulation; the title track pulls out a rhythm that would have sounded at home on Scary Monsters; “How Does the Grass Grow?” seems to combine the backing vocals of “TVC-15″ with the buzzing guitars of Heroes.
As always, it seems that David Bowie knows the score, but then he’s always had a knack for figuring out what to do next (and confusing a whole lot of his listeners in the process). The man has had a long career, spanning the better part of 46 years, and hadn’t stood still for very long up until his recent hiatus. In those years, a barrage of compilations have been issued — some titled as “Greatest Hits” and others sporting a thinly veiled variation — but none of them have been much of a signpost for the end of Bowie’s career or cultural relevance. Now that The Next Day has hit speakers around the world, it almost sounds like Bowie’s version of his greatest hits, funneled through half a century of musical innovation and evolution and avoiding the practice of hand-over-fist nostalgia-for-cash. But even if we are to take this effort as a career retrospective of sorts, it still doesn’t sound, feel or look like a bookend.
Artist: David Bowie
Album: The Next Day