Straight from the ’70s, today we’re talking about a genre that’s perhaps been forgotten. It’s called “plastic soul” and was most commonly used by Bowie to describe his output during those years.
The term is used to deride and slap a label of falseness on someone’s musical taste or creations. I’m as defensive of peoples’ music tastes as the next person (see also my posts on guilty pleasures) but in this case…I think it’s right. There’s a feeling of hollowness to the sound. Not only that, the term almost feels fitting since plastic soul is literally packaged for an audience that wouldn’t necessarily seek out soul music themselves (i.e. white suburbia).
My favorite podcast, “You’re Wrong About”, did an episode on Disco Demolition Night that I think dovetails nicely with my argument here. It was a literal rejection of “real” disco because attendees felt like it didn’t speak to them: maybe it was too funky, maybe it was too emotional, maybe it had been created by a marginalized group that they didn’t identify with.
But music has a way of being slippery and adaptable so as much as people tried to turn it down, disco just kept getting louder until it morphed into what we call “house music” today. After all, people still need to dance to something.
Plastic soul, though, isn’t danceable. It lacks that urgency that makes you want to get up and move because the saxophone is just a little too sharp, a little too clean (“Young Americans” is a great example of this). There’s no funk here, nothing rich that’s holding it all together.
I still like listening to it, but I’m not about to boogie.
While I am the first to admit that I am not the world’s biggest David Bowie fan (I like his music, I’m just not obsessive about it the way I am about other artists), I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge this cultural moment. What follows is a small roundup of links about the man, his music, and his impact. Overall this is just bizarre to me: Bowie always fashioned himself as a transcendent alien, so I never thought of him as someone who would be able to die.
David Bowie Dies at 69; Star Transcended Music, Art, and Fashion
David Bowie’s Fashion Legacy
David Bowie Allowed His Art to Deliver a Final Message
And because this is a female-focused blog, I would also like to include the following link as well. I don’t want to start a firestorm on the internet, but I feel that this aspect of David Bowie’s life is important to point out.
“So that’s what I’m going to try to do: try to get comfortable with the discomfort of the grey area. To understand that a glorious oddball can also be someone protected from consequence by his position in the world. To see genius and abuse not as reflections of monsters or angels, but simply things that people do. Real, complicated, screwed up things and people. To try to understand more about the why of it all, since all of it is part of our common humanity whether we like it or not. To acknowledge that I love and am inspired by so much music this man created, and that I’m going to be as saddened by his loss and transported by his music as I’m furious at what he did. And in that discomfort, working towards a culture where rich, white, extraordinarily talented men don’t get a licence to abuse with impunity.” (sic) (From “David Bowie was wonderful. He was also an abuser. How do we handle that?”)