In 1981, MTV was born and the music video became a measured, constructed, and elevated art form, a thing I watched hungrily from my remove in the Midwest. But for more than a decade before that, David Bowie and the directors he worked with were experimenting with the medium, taking theatrics, music, and new (at the time) technology and bringing them together in a novel way.
Now the David Bowie Archives has given the Museum of Modern Art the entirety of Bowie’s video collection, up to the present. In celebration of the gift, Thurston Moore, best known for his work with Sonic Youth, and MoMA Department of Media Associate Curator Barbara London selected videos for a special screening on December 1 at the museum. The videos presented from the collection included Life on Mars (1973, directed by Mick Rock), Heroes (1977, Stanley Dorfman), and newer videos for Fame 90 (1990, Gus Van Sant) and Jump They Say (1993, Mark Romanek).
The most pleasurable to watch was the video for DJ (1979, David Mallet), which pre-dated MTV and yet captured what would become the primary style of the early (commercial) music videos: stagy props interspliced with a man on the street lip-syncing, wearing a trench coat, and being inundated with kissy admirers. The secret is in the video’s simplicity—how spontaneous it feels. Bowie’s donning of a pink jumpsuit makes him look like an Avon lady-cum-mechanic. Another vibrant piece, Ashes to Ashes (1980, David Bowie and David Mallet), featuring dadaesque characters and something reminiscent of the solarization process pioneered by Man Ray, was clearly a chance for Bowie to show off his mime schooling.
The most shocking video in the collection was Bowie’s cover of Iggy Pop’s China Girl (1983, David Bowie and David Mallet). It surprised me because I had never thought to visualize the lyrics (“My little China girl, you shouldn’t mess with me/I’ll ruin everything you are/I’ll give you television/I’ll give you eyes of blue.”) The original video featured Bowie as a crooner with bleached hair fetishizing a young Chinese woman, and included a lot of superimposed objects and cultural insensitivity (a bowl of rice thrown into the air, Bowie making slanted eyes at his mistress), which made the crowd at MoMA laugh. After checking out the uncut version online, I realized I felt both gypped and relieved by MoMA’s prudishness.
Moore gave a talk before the presentation, outlining his bedroom discovery of Bowie on the cover of the first rock ’n’ roll magazine he felt like hiding from his mother. As a teenager in Connecticut in the early ’70s, Moore saw Bowie as an alien, yet he could sense that this androgynous and sexual, emotional chameleon was ushering in a new way of thinking about music.
I remember the first encounter I had with Bowie the icon: I was nine years old, watching television with my father, and a music program mentioned in passing that Bowie had been more financially successful than the Beatles. My father, being distinctly from the pre-glam rock generation, scoffed, “John Lennon has more talent in his pinkie finger than David Bowie.” I remember thinking, “This David Bowie must be very cool,” as I watched video footage of him with his odd, dilated eye. I was a strange child, collecting Depeche Mode singles and producing “radio shows” using my double-cassette boom box during this period. At this time in the ’80s, music videos were an accessible art form. It would have been hard to imagine, as they were pumped round the clock into our artless suburban worlds, that MTV would eventually go stale and begin promoting reality television more than the niche creative projects the channel had been founded on.
In 1985 MoMA began collecting outstanding videos by musical artists like the Residents, Devo, and Captain Beefheart, initially for an exhibit titled Music Video: The Industry and Its Fringes. The museum’s collection currently contains around ninety specimens, some of which were also on display in the recent show Looking at Music. In addition to videos, that exhibit featured other interdisciplinary music projects produced between 1965 and 1975, like Laurie Anderson’s Self-Playing Violin and Bruce Nauman’s video Lip Sync (1969). These pieces remind us that before we came upon the idea of the music video as a packaged and market-friendly tool, unyielding and chaotic multimedia dominated.
MTV long ago realized there was no money in purity of vision. In some ways, we are back to Bowie’s square one. DIY videos rule on the Internet, and the only other place to watch decent music videos is at a museum or gallery. The videos in the Bowie collection, on the other hand, are available to watch on YouTube whenever you feel like it, but be warned: the quality won’t elicit quite the same feeling as watching the archival film on the big screen. Then again, you can see Bowie’s rear end in the privacy of your own home, where you’re free to pause and rewind as often as you want.