Blogrolling: Pushing Ahead of the Dame

(23 comments)

I am, of course, terribly biased. Chris O'Leary is doing the copyediting on the first Tom Baker book, has written a guest post for me, and is solidly a friend. But, look, I like to think I have taste in my friends. In any case, Chris just shared some of the opening chapters of the book version of his blog with me, and they're fabulous, so I thought I'd go do a "everyone should go read this" post on his blog.

The word "psychochronography" is one I invented, but the concept of talking about a larger swath of history through obsessive coverage of one idiosyncratic route through that history is longstanding. Which is to say that what Chris is doing over at Pushing Ahead of the Dame, his song-by-song analysis of the work of David Bowie, is firmly in the spirit of psychochronography.

But what Pushing Ahead of the Dame does isn't to trace the arcs of history, at least not primarily. There certainly is a sense of history as you move over the thirty years the blog has covered at this point, but it's not a blog about the history. Instead what Pushing Ahead of the Dame offers is a portrait of how a creative mind evolves over time.

A large part of this is picking the right creative mind. David Bowie, as it happens, is perfect. Few people are going to straight-facedly claim that Bowie is the greatest songwriter or musician of his era - of any of his eras, really. Equally, few are going to deny that he's one of the biggest of most of them. And nobody is going to deny that there's an absolutely shockingly large number of eras David Bowie belongs to.

Bowie, at his core, is motivated primarily by a desire to be a pop/rock star. He wants to write and record hit music. As it happens, he's terribly good at this, and so an ongoing study of his creative progress amounts to a look at how a pragmatic and talented mind responds to new influences. In some eras the answer is "by figuring them out just before they hit big and riding the wave." In other eras the answer is "spectacularly poorly."

Either way, the result is in many ways a musical version of Doctor Who - a musician who absorbs influence after influence and attempts to make his version of them. But again, instead of tracing the history of the influences, Pushing Ahead of the Dame traces the material process of engaging with them: how songs come together, change over the years, and, more broadly, how they fit together into the development of albums.

What is perhaps most interesting is that I'm not a particularly big David Bowie fan. I mean, I've, you know, heard a fair amount of it and can identify most of the major David Bowie songs, but I'm nothing like a die-hard fan. But the blog still reliably works, and not just because he scrupulously links to YouTube versions of the tracks at the top of every entry. No, it works in a large part because it's tracing something other than just the history of the songs. In many ways unfamiliarity is a bit of a bonus, as it lets you approach the material not as reviews of known quantities but as the meandering production of a creative mind.

(I often wonder, on a similar note, whether TARDIS Eruditorum is more satisfying for the readers who are hardline Doctor Who fans who have seen all of the things I talk about, or more satisfying for fans with incomplete or spotty knowledge. I consciously write it with the intention of it being intelligible to the latter, and I know readers of that sort exist, but I always wonder who has more fun.)

In any case, Pushing Ahead of the Dame remains one of my favorite ways to kill an hour or two on the Internet, whether by picking a song I know and reading in the space around it, or by picking an album, preferably one I've heard about more than I've actually heard, and reading through the posts. Also fun is reading the entries that span the gap between two albums, watching as Chris tears down the scaffolding around one era (typically by showing where and why Bowie gets frustrated with a given direction) and transitioning gamely into the themes of another. Or some other reading method. Personally, I should probably try actually reading the blog linearly from start to finish, actually - the one approach I've not ever attempted (though I suppose I'll just wait for the book version there). But however I approach it on a given day, it remains one of my favorite places to park my brain for a while and explore.

Comments

Anton B 4 years, 4 months ago

'But however I approach it on a given day, it remains one of my favorite places to park my brain for a while and explore.'

This pretty much sums up my experience with this blog too. I would say, in a fortuitous piece of synchronicity, that my love of Doctor Who and David Bowie are on pretty much the same level. While not an obsessive collector I have grown up with both and consider them to have been the soundtrack and backdrop to my life, both have inspired me in my career as a performer. Pushing Ahead of the Dame is a great site, thanks for reminding me. I recently visited the 'Bowie is' exhibition at the V&A museum in London and was reminded of just what a lighning rod for the zeitgeist Bowie was. If anyone ever persuades him to play the Doctor my life will be complete.

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Froborr 4 years, 4 months ago

I often wonder, on a similar note, whether TARDIS Eruditorum is more satisfying for the readers who are hardline Doctor Who fans who have seen all of the things I talk about, or more satisfying for fans with incomplete or spotty knowledge. I consciously write it with the intention of it being intelligible to the latter, and I know readers of that sort exist, but I always wonder who has more fun.

I may be able to answer this question, because I'm both! I've seen a moderate handful of episodes of the classic series--the only serials I'd seen in their entirety prior to reading your coverage of them were Genesis of the Daleks, Time and the Rani, The Happiness Patrol, Ghostlight, and Remembrance of the Daleks. (I'd also seen probably a couple dozen scattered episodes of Four through Six, but no other complete serials.)

Then when you go to the wilderness years, I'd read exactly ONE of the books you covered (Lungbarrow).

And now we're on New Who, of which I've seen every episode, most of them multiple times.

I have absolutely adored your blog to pieces, and enjoyed every word, in every one of those eras.

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What Happened To Robbie? 4 years, 4 months ago

I have to agree with Froborr above. I've seen all the televised stuff, including sitting through recons, have devoured most of the Big Finish stuff but never ventured past the first few NAs and read none of the EDAs. But I find I have enjoyed your coverage of the books as much as the things I'm familiar with (I'm also unfamiliar with the large majority of the Pop Between Realities but these I enjoy too) . I've never commented before because I've never had anything interesting to add to these discussions but have always meant to thank you for the enjoyment and fresh perspectives I get from this blog. Reading the new entries is the first thing I do in the morning. So thank you Phil :)

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encyclops 4 years, 4 months ago

I've only read a sampling of that blog's entries myself, but I like it so much, and Bowie enough, that I went into Shut Up And Take My Money mode as soon as you mentioned that there would be a book. I can't wait to have that on my shelf, or at least on my Kindle.

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Contumacy Singh 4 years, 4 months ago

I always appreciate your blog suggestions.

While I can certainly Google "Pushing Ahead of the Dame" it would be great if you included the link in your post. ;)

Chris

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Chris 4 years, 4 months ago

I think I'd straight-facedly claim that Bowie is the greatest songwriter or musician of his era, by which I mean the 70s. Pushing Ahead of the Dame is excellent - it's at http://bowiesongs.wordpress.com/ , for those who haven't been to it - I can't see a link above.

I think when it comes to music it does help having heard the songs before reading about them. With this blog I've tended to only read entries for episodes/audios I've seen/heard or those I've no strong intention of experiencing (lost stories, generally poorly thought of stories and pretty much all the books) to avoid spoilers, but I enjoy both categories. (I've seen all the New Series and a smattering of the old series, plus have hazy memories of most of the Eighties episodes from my childhood, most of which I haven't rewatched since.)

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Ross 4 years, 4 months ago

I often wonder, on a similar note, whether TARDIS Eruditorum is more satisfying for the readers who are hardline Doctor Who fans who have seen all of the things I talk about, or more satisfying for fans with incomplete or spotty knowledge. I consciously write it with the intention of it being intelligible to the latter, and I know readers of that sort exist, but I always wonder who has more fun

I'll say this: my textual knowledge of the canon is encyclopedic (I know and care to know next to nothing of the behind-the-scenes stuff. I'm a diagesis sort of guy. Don't even know the names of the members of my favorite bands half the time). Basically, I was born to win Doctor Who trivia games (I have come to consider this more of a bug than a feature in my brain. I think there's something wrong with the part of my brain responsible for deciding which things are worth taking up space. So I can remember every time in the classic series that the camera shows a view into or out of the console room, thus disproving the fan-theory that there's an unseen anteroom and that this is why the new series RUINED EVERYTHING, and I can remember the phone number of the pizzaria on Kent Island when I was a kid which closed and turned into a Cracker Barrel over a decade ago, but I have to count on my fingers to work out when my son's birthday is).

This blog is the first thing in a long time that I felt actually added something new-in-kind to my experience of Doctor Who. And also, in a very real sense, the first time in a long time I've actually felt any desire to go back and watch any of it (One side-effect of having an encyclopedic, detail-oriented memory is that rewatching stuff is superfluous at best and tedious at worst. I've got 7.4 terrabytes of beloved TV show DVDs and archived recordings off the TiVo that I never watch). Nowadays, I'm negotiating with my wife for a timeslice to show her The Web Planet -- a sentence I never thought I'd be saying.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 4 months ago

Ah. Yes. That would have been clever of me, wouldn't it have been.

Fixed.

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Hopper 4 years, 4 months ago

While I was a moderate sci-fi fan growing up, I knew nothing of Doctor Who (something about a guy in a big scarf was the extent of my knowledge) until the new series. I'd read your Nintendo project, and gave this a chance as I was a little curious about past Who. I loved the early coverage, but around the Blake entry I felt it went a little off the rails in terms of description vs. commentary.

I enjoy the "redemptive reading" approach: keep what works and reframe what doesn't, so the memory of the show is better than the actual transmitted audiovisuals. Unfortunately, in the popular years your entries included so little of the "stock" plot and import, that I got no sense of what you were trying to transform. I'm in Plato's cave, and you're making shadow puppets, but there's not enough light from the original for me to see the shape of the shadow. I know I can find summaries elsewhere, but I'm not so invested in Doctor Who that I'm up for DIY research to follow a blog.

I was relieved when we reached the wilderness years and you introduced "I'll Explain Later." I'll probably pick up that book when the time comes, to sit next to my Hartnell and Troughton copies, but for me, the Pertwee through Davison entries can't stand on their own enough to invite a re-reading.

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Wm Keith 4 years, 4 months ago

I am a hardline Doctor Who fan. I have never seen material social progress.

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T. Hartwell 4 years, 4 months ago

Aw, from the picture I thought you were gonna be doing a post on Labyrinth or something.

Ah, well, Pushing Ahead of the Dame is an excellent blog anyways.

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Hopper 4 years, 4 months ago

Since I don't think I made it clear, let me say that I realize I'm outside even your "casual fan" target audience, and don't expect you to change anything to chase the fringe where I live. Since you raised the topic of audience, I just figured you might enjoy seeing an unusual perspective, from someone who wouldn't normally be engaged to the point of commenting.

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Anton B 4 years, 4 months ago

I'm the perfect demographic for both blogs. I would say Bowie and Doctor Who have been the primary influences on my life and career choices since early childhood. I became fascinated with SF, experimental music, TV production, drama and performance through both David Bowie's classic albums and Hartnell-through-Tom Baker Doctor Who; going on to create, perform, manage, and teach in most of those disciplines. If Bowie was ever to be offered and accept the part of the Doctor my life would be complete! (I imagine him playing it as a combination of Nikola Tesla (from The Prestige) and Thomas Jerome Newton (from The Man Who Fell to Earth).

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Froborr 4 years, 4 months ago

I think there's something wrong with the part of my brain responsible for deciding which things are worth taking up space.

I'm the same way! Twenty years later, I can remember what time to set the clock in Zozo to in order to get the chainsaw in Final Fantasy VI (6:10:50), but this year I forgot my own birthday. I have a similarly encyclopedic knowledge of Tolkien's legendarium, but I can't remember what hte house I grew up in looked like. I am a demon in trivia contests, but I don't remember what my girlfriends in college looked like.

I've actually read up on this a bit; turns out there's at least three different types of memory (which we know are separate because it's possible for brain damage to mess up one type while leaving the others intact): semantic, which is remembering facts that don't have personal resonance; biographical, which is remembering events in your own life, as well as people's names and faces and facts which have a personal resonance; and kinetic, which is remembering how to perform tasks. Near as I can tell, I have a more-or-less average kinetic memory, a stellar semantic memory, and the worst biographical memory of anyone I know.

There's an excellent Umberto Eco novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, about a man who loses most of his biographical memory due to a stroke, but retains his (excellent) semantic memory. So he decides to go back and reread the comic books he enjoyed as a child (which he can still remember clearly) in the hopes that he will recover his memories of what was happening in his life when he first read them.

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Ross 4 years, 4 months ago

I've actually read up on this a bit; turns out there's at least three different types of memory (which we know are separate because it's possible for brain damage to mess up one type while leaving the others intact): semantic, which is remembering facts that don't have personal resonance; biographical, which is remembering events in your own life, as well as people's names and faces and facts which have a personal resonance; and kinetic, which is remembering how to perform tasks.

At last, justification for the fiction trope where "amnesia" always means "You retain all of your skills and all of your knowledge about how to be an ordinary 21st century human living in whatever society the fiction is set in, but you forget everything about your identity."

Still doesn't justify "Anything you knew outside of the normal baseline of 21st century human experience, such as the fact that aliens exist, vampires are real, or how to use your superpowers is also forgotten, even if there has never been a time in your life when you didn't know those things, and indeed you may gain new knowledge of how to behave as a normal 21st century human if you didn't know that before, I'm looking at you, Stargate SG-1, Power Rangers and Buffy"

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Froborr 4 years, 4 months ago

In Buffy's defense, that amnesia was explicitly magical, and therefore would naturally follow the rules of narrative logic, not causative logic and science.

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Froborr 4 years, 4 months ago

Seriously? You have never seen any change over time in society for the better, even in one small area? How do you find the will to go on living?

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Ross 4 years, 4 months ago

Sure, sure, but it's especially grating in contrast with the amnesia episode of Angel which handled it really well (Spoilers: magical amnesia deletes everyone's memory past the age of about 14. Which means some of the characters still know about the supernatural, because they'd learned about it young. And Angel freaks out when he sees a car, because, being from the eighteenth century, "Eeeagh! Iron bull!")

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Daibhid C 4 years, 4 months ago

Actual conversation between me and my Mum:

Mum: How can you remember whole scenes of dialogue from Doctor Who and Discworld, but not whether you've had lunch?

Me: How can *you* remember whether you've had lunch, but not scenes from books? Whether you've had lunch isn't even *funny*!

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sleepyscholar 4 years, 4 months ago

Seeing changes in society is a motivated activity: we direct our attention according to our preferences. When I go back to the UK I moan about the terrible trains. It takes a massive effort for me to recall the many ways in which 70s Britain was terrible (even listening to the Sex Pistols doesn't help, as they make it sound... kinda cool), and how the current situation is so much better.

So if our attention is focused on current problems, as it usually is, it's extremely difficult to see material social progress. And we find the will to go on living by tut-tutting and complaining about how the country's going to the dogs.

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Theonlyspiral 4 years, 4 months ago

Gay Marriage? The improvement in racial and religious acceptance? Nothing at all?

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peeeeeeet 4 years, 4 months ago

Brilliant. I have spent all day reading it and will spend most of tomorrow reading more probably. Someone really needs to do a blog like these for Prince.

(... it's going to be me, isn't it. I can actually feel a part of my brain signing over the next three years of my life.)

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