I used to teach a class on Middle Eastern history. The director of the program wanted me include the Qur’an among the recommended readings. I was against it, but I relented. So I turned its inclusion into a teaching point. As an exercise for the class, I asked students what books they would recommend to people from the Middle East for an American history course. Some mentioned DeToqueville or Thomas Paine, some mentioned the Bible. If the student did mention one of those, I’d ask if they themselves had read those books. The discussion went from there.
This brings me to the passing of David Bowie. Social media exploded this week with professions of love for Bowie, heartfelt comments on his influence and the like. There is no doubt that David Bowie was an interesting and influential artist, a compelling personality, and a commercially successful musician. He was not, however, my type of music, though I really enjoyed “Heroes” and “Changes.” Was I being left out? Judging by social media yesterday, I was in the minority in my ambivalence towards the Thin White Duke.
I don’t think that reading the Qur’an is useful for a Middle Eastern history class for three reasons. First, the Qur’an is a contradictory, vague and very long read. Second, reading a text from a millennium and a half ago to understand current events is insulting to the people in the region, as if they stopped thinking in the 7th century. But never mind those two, because my main argument was this: is it worth reading something to understand people that most of them probably haven’t read themselves? I would guess that, people being people, most folks either read something about the Qur’an or have it explained to them by someone else. They know the big teachings, the declaration of faith, and the proper celebration of the major holidays
I guess this because of my personal experience as an American. If students suggested the Bible, I asked if they’d actually read it. Most hadn’t. They also hadn’t read DeToqueville or Paine, or any of the other important works they’d recommended. They’d read things about those books or had the key points of the books explained to them. I would then turn to the books Americans actually read. To judge by the best-seller lists, these are diet and self-help books, genre fiction, and celebrity memoirs. Things that are much easier and more enjoyable to read than the Bible or the books you skipped the first time in Political Science 101.
If we want to understand America, should we read the books Americans want us to read about themselves, or what they actually read? I vote for the latter, but I’m not certain that I’m right. Your own opinion will vary depending on whether you want to understand people as they are, or as they want to be.
Many people clearly have a deep connection to David Bowie. In addition to admiring his persona and his music, he had a significant influence on popular music. If we wanted someone to understand the popular music of the late 20th century, I suppose you would include his works as a necessary part of the canon. But very few people actually listen to David Bowie. Not one of his albums is featured on the Billboard Greatest 200 Albums of All Time, which measures album sales since 1958. He’s also not on the Top 200 Artists of All Time, also based on sales. He doesn’t warrant inclusion into the BMI 100 Songs of the Century, which is based on radio airplay. When given the choice, we Americans actually listen to things like Journey, Bob Seger, and Toby Keith (nos. 58, 75, and 79 on the Billboard list), the checkout lane genre fiction of music.
You could take this to a very cynical conclusion, which would be that social media is full of people hoping you’ll think of them as having carefully considered musical taste, while they are actually listening to dreck like Rascal Flatts and “Don’t Stop Believin‘.” America is a nation spending a fortune on diet books and exercise wear while we sit at home marbling our hams with Stouffer’s Cheesy Colon Packer Deluxe. We’re lying to ourselves and everyone else.
I’m more positive than that. We all want to put their best self out there in the world. The self that likes unique art, idiosyncratic personalities, and difficult music. We should like music like Bowie’s, even if our Spotify playlists are pockmarked with Sam Smith and Walk the Moon. More importantly, we aspire to be part of a community that does as well. A newsfeed full of David Bowie is comforting. Trapped in the Trump Nadir, we can be part of a community of taste. We can be people who value art, people who celebrate individuality, and people who enjoy important music. At least, as Bowie would have it, we could be them – just for one day.