Bowie and Murdoch – both powerful shapers of our modern culture

Both were compellingly other-worldly, as if they had arrived from a galaxy far, far away

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The Independent Online

That niggling question about the existence  of a benign god is one I answered for myself, in the negative, long ago. But even had I passed these last several decades as a devout and unquestioning believer, that faith would have been rocked to the edge of collapse by the contrasting news to which we awoke on successive mornings this week.

One morning, the first thing encountered after reaching for the laptop is David Bowie’s death at 69. The next, your sleep-encrusted eyes are assailed by the news that Rupert Murdoch is betrothed to Jerry Hall, and will marry her in the summer, soon after turning 85. How can it be that Bowie belongs to the past, while Murdoch looks with excitement, according to a statement, to his future? In what kind of sub-Bowiesque dystopian world could this possibly be?

Perhaps Justin Welby, who revealed himself on Radio 4 as the first Bowie fan  to occupy the see of Canterbury, would  care to return to the Today studio to explain how that all-loving deity could sanction such a brutal juxtaposition. 

“I will dance a merry jig when Murdoch bids farewell,” tweeted the genius-tinged comedy writer Graham Linehan (breath-holding isn’t advised, Graham. Murdoch’s mother, Dame Elisabeth, made it to 103). “All the tears from Bowie will march back up my face.” 

Some deaths are so profoundly consuming that you cannot avoid filtering your reaction to everything else through their prism, and this is one. So it is that I catch myself thinking about these two extraordinary men as mirror images of each other, albeit reflected in one of those fairground mirrors that distort the beautiful into the grotesque for comic effect.

On reflection, the two had more in common than might have occurred a few days ago. Both settled in achingly cool loft apartments in New York’s SoHo, in self-imposed exile from their homelands. In their different ways, both were compellingly other-worldly, as if they had infiltrated the systems of Earth from a galaxy far, far away. 

Bowie deliberately created the alien demigod image (though assisted by that permanently dilated left eye); Murdoch, the anti-Bowie, inadvertently achieved it by acquiring a startling likeness to Davros, Dark Lord of Skaro. And both knew how  to monetise fame – the one so elegantly with all the bedazzling reinventions  along with the unbounded artistic talent; the other crudely by force-feeding the reading public highly addictive morsels  of celebrity prurience. 

And they were arguably the two most important cultural influences Britain has known since the emergence of the Beatles. Enough has been written already about Bowie’s transformative impact on those of us who saw him sing “Starman” on Top of the Pops, and on the subsequent generations he shaped. 

And more than enough has been written over the years about the impact Murdoch made by recreating The Sun, previously a gentle and left-leaning rag, into the red-top juggernaut that coarsened popular culture and helped usher Margaret Thatcher into power. Suffice it to say that without either, this would be a different country today.

Befittingly for Bizarro World alter-egos, their self-exposure travelled in opposite directions. Bowie, who in the 1970s lived in a self-constructed showcase as though his life were performance art, increasingly withdrew as he came to relish his privacy in New York. Murdoch, who clung to obscurity in the 1970s and beyond, waited until he was in his own seventies to explode as a classically tabloid figure. 

Admittedly not in our tabloids, which give him the widest of berths either because he owns them or from fear of reprisals (not one of the Daily Mail’s stable of harridans will write the “What is Jerry, still gorgeous at 59, doing with this monstrous old goat?” piece that would be obligatory with any other similar marriage). In its melodrama and sweeping vulgarity, however, his life is tabloid as they come. 

Over the last few years, there cannot have been many phones in the English-speaking world more worth hacking than Murdoch’s. What would you not have given to earwig his chat with third wife Wendi Deng after he learned of her girlish, Singlish diary entries about Mr Tony Blair (“He has such good body and he has really really good  legs, butt … And he is slim tall and good skin. Pierce blue eyes which I love”)? Or with his son, James, after the latter’s monumental incompetence contributed  to the destruction of his beloved News  of the World? Or with Elisabeth, his daughter, during his feud with her then husband Matthew Freud when it seemed Rupert might fall, and the children were scrambling to position themselves for  the succession? 

What wouldn’t you sacrifice for illegally purloined video footage from his daughters’ Christ-like christening in the river Jordan, when the white robe-clad godparents included Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman and Blair?

 And now here he is, possibly after a  trip to an Alpine clinic to have monkey foetus injected into his bum, and possibly not, poised to emulate Bowie by taking a former supermodel for his wife. 

We wish Jerry every happiness with  her prenup legal team and in the marriage to follow. Even by reality TV standards,  hers has been an amazing, amazing  journey on the male aesthetics front, from the young Bryan Ferry to the present Murdoch, via Mick Jagger in his middle years when he and Bowie had that number one single with a spirited cover version  of a Motown standard. 

Whether or not the nuptial announcement in The Times has them dancing in the streets of Chicago, New York and down in New Orleans (and don’t forget the Motor City), I give thanks for the entertainment even while swigging down the anti-emetics. Late in life, but better late than never, Rupert Murdoch has somehow contrived to reinvent himself as the patriarchal lead character in a sprawling soap opera of his own creation. Bowie, you suspect, would approve.