Euan McColm: Bowie furore proves we can be zeroes

FOR those of us who consider there to be no higher form of art than popular music, the return last year of David Bowie from a decade-long self-imposed exile was thrilling.

Kate Moss receives the British Male Solo Artist award on behalf of David Bowie. Picture: Getty
Kate Moss receives the British Male Solo Artist award on behalf of David Bowie. Picture: Getty

It had seemed we would hear no more from one of the form’s greatest exponents. We would have to content ourselves with much loved but ageing recordings which froze him in the past.

And with the excitement of his re-emergence, relief, as the first fruits of Bowie’s most recent labours were revealed. If one had grown up with pop music, here was the pitch-perfect sound of its adulthood. Moving and elegiac, his comeback single Where Are We Now? was the once brash –Ziggy Stardust in the autumn of his years. It was a creative triumph, a reminder that Bowie has few peers (and fewer still with the passing of each year).

On Wednesday, Bowie became – at 67 – the oldest winner of a Brit Award, when he was named best British male artist. Of course, we should not take these ceremonies – run by and for the music industry – too seriously, but how wonderful that he was being honoured for vital new work rather than being given one of those lifetime achievement gongs which pay tribute to past glories while signalling the end of relevance.

By now, you will know that Bowie sent the model Kate Moss to collect the award on his behalf. She delivered a very brief speech which ended with four words from the singer: “Scotland: stay with us.”

And then the world – or the corner of it which we inhabit – went mad.

The storm began, as it does, these days, online, where scores of supporters of Scottish independence reacted using very old English. Who was this [expletive deleted] to [expletive deleted] tell Scots what to [expletive deleted] do? He’s doesn’t [expletive deleted] pay tax and he lives in [expletive deleted] New York. What a ­total [expletive deleted].

But it wasn’t just the usual cybernat army which turned against the Thin White Duke for daring to have Moss read those four words. Serious, high-profile Yes campaigners joined in. They were furious. And they looked very silly indeed.

I’ve always felt it a mistake to characterise a nation’s people as one like-minded unit, as if the place of our birth means we are genetically predisposed to be one way or another. This stereotyping is a favourite tactic of politicians. Just look at the SNP’s case for Scottish independence, which depends to a huge extent on us accepting that Scots have completely different values from those held by others who inhabit the British Isles.

But let me make the mistake I describe and say that I have always believed Scotland is a funny nation. Don’t we laugh at authority? Don’t we take the mickey out of those we dislike and those we love? Don’t we protect ourselves from the worst of times by seeing the humour or, if it doesn’t exist, creating it?

And isn’t the tenor of the debate over Scottish independence robbing us of these gifts?

Within seconds of Bowie’s four words – four words! – being delivered by Moss, we were left in no doubt that this was not a laughing matter. There was some comedy, yes. On Twitter, the hashtag #scottishbowie threw up such gems as “The man who fell to Perth”, “Life on mars bars”, and “Jean Jeanie”.

But it was the rage, the shouting down that soon dominated (although this brought its own, unintentional humour. Who could help but smile at the livid Scottish nationalist who posted a message to Bowie’s Facebook page, informing the pop star that he was going to delete all of his music from his laptop? Bowie, I am certain, is not obliged to refund this particular erstwhile fan who, at some point, will come to realise that all he achieved was to get rid of a chunk of the soundtrack to his life).

Bowie was perfectly entitled to express a desire for Scotland to remain within the UK. Anyone is, whether they live here or not. That’s one of the things about freedom: the freedom it gives us all. It’s the freedom that means we feel free to comment not only on what happens in this country but in Palestine, Kiev, or the US.

Surely the Scottish response – even from those who disagreed with ­Bowie’s words (and to call this an intervention in the debate is to overstate things) – should have been to laugh?

But anger – dumb, inexplicable, pointless anger – bubbled up and spilled over.

The writer and Yes Scotland campaigner Alan Bissett was still furious a day later. He was, variously, angry that these were the words of an English Millionaire, that Bowie had failed to attempt to “understand”, and that he had neglected to use the word “please”.

To Bissett, who believes a Yes vote will herald a new frenzy of Scottish creativity, this was an out of touch Englishman ordering Scots around (and a word of advice here: if your Scottish nationalist narrative is that it is not about the “other”, then focusing on the nationality of those with whom you disagree is not wise).

Bowie was caricatured in the same way that Tory MPs find themselves. It was as if, while launching his ill-considered rock group experiment Tin Machine, Bowie had found the time to introduce the Poll Tax and later, before his shortlived drum ’n’ bass phase, decided to close Ravenscraig.

Pat Kane, a former pop star with the duo Hue and Cry, wrote an article on the subject which is currently being deciphered. Kane also made it to a TV studio to dismiss Bowie’s words as misguided but forgivable, which was big of him.

I remember when Scotland was a funny place. Things weren’t perfect and there were good people on all sides of the debate trying to make things better. Now our public discourse is so devoid of good humour that decent Scots can be reduced to spluttering apoplexy by the words of a pop star.

Where are we now?

Twitter: @euanmccolm