The cool were at the Brits. The ultra-cool weren't

Some people – like David Bowie with his non-appearance at the awards – just know what they can get away with. Unfortunately some don't

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In considering the many paradoxes surrounding David Bowie's no-show at the Brits last week, we might start with the following: his fellow award-winner Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys said rock music would never die precisely because he knew it had done. Real music has lost out to Cowell-ised narcissism, encapsulated by the existence of an award for "biggest global success".

So there's an award for being successful. Why not have an award for the artist who has won the most awards – for being "most awarded" as the Americans say, annoyingly? It's likely that Bowie deplores this vacuity. His terrific song of 2003, "Fall Dog Bombs the Moon", bemoans: "These blackest of years that have no sound, no shape no depth, no underground".

Here is the first possibility: Bowie's no-show was a snub.

On the face of it that is bad behaviour. You're supposed to go to things you're invited to, especially things you don't want to go to. But the Brits is crass, so we can let him off. Actually, if he had gone it would have been a snub to us tasteful people. By this interpretation, the fact that his non-attendance was itself front-page news should be regarded as pure coincidence.

This coincidental result (let us say for now) was of real benefit to the organisers, so it is not impossible that Bowie was invited, and awarded, precisely because they knew he wouldn't come … and it's possible he knew this, in which case the true snub would have been for him to turn up.

This is all a privilege of fame. Nobody will ever gain by my non-attendance at their event, except insofar as they hate my guts and are heartily pleased that I am not present, in which case they would – if they were intelligent – have followed the relatively straightforward course of not inviting me.

It is also possible that Bowie is simply a genuinely self-effacing man who didn't want any fuss. There is some evidence that Bowie is self-effacing, but not much. He seemed well-balanced in interviews, when he used to give them, and I would add that he is one of the few men in Britain with a full head of hair who regularly conceals his hair beneath a hat.

But there is more evidence the other way. David Bowie – formerly David Jones – is a virtuoso of fame. Note the way his own mystique at the Brits was increased at the expense of that of his main rival, Kate Moss, in that she was required to speak, which she had been rumoured never to stoop to doing.

Elton John has described Bowie as "vampiric" in his appropriation of the right style at the right time. No less a practitioner than Mick Jagger complimented him on the release of his latest album, for which he employed the same apparent reticence as displayed this week (an unheralded internet release at midnight).

Bowie knows that the ultimate awe-inspiring privilege of the truly famous is to shun exposure. He is not alone in this. Harry Styles was absent when his own band's award was announced at the Brits, ostensibly because he was "having a wee". Charles Saatchi does not go to his own art shows. I know a publicist who worked for Ted Hughes, who sent her a crate of champagne every year with a note thanking her for not getting him any publicity.

People like nothing more than to be told "no", but this requires the involvement of third parties. The tragic thing about the homemade publicity we're all encouraged to peddle is the loneliness, the lack of third parties to say "no" to. You can interview yourself (I've seen it done) but you can't turn down the chance to be interviewed by yourself. You'd look pretty silly if you put up your arm to shield yourself from your own selfie.

The decline of print journalism means there are fewer professional third parties out there to snub, but 20 years ago I was one. I oversaw a magazine column in which famous people were invited to describe "My Saturday".

"If you're absolutely stuck," my editor counselled, "you can always get a Radio One DJ. A mid-level celebrity like, say, Martin Amis, will talk to you if he's got a book out, but any really big star will never," he concluded crushingly, "do a 'My Saturday'."

David Bowie will not only never do a "My Saturday", he will never do anything, and this is where he enters rarefied territory even for the ultra-famous. He seems to be going for the complete white-out, as practised by J D Salinger. But there never can be a complete white-out, because as long as you're alive nobody believes it, and so the celebrity's life climaxes in a chorus of desperate, imploring flattery.

Some observers of this phenomenon might think the widely-cooed "cool" should be displaced by the word "precious"; but the sensation may be addictive for Bowie, and if his life were a pop single, then this is undoubtedly the perfect fade-out.

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