January 11, 2016

Goblin King RIP (the generations reflect on David Bowie)

That's the in memoriam of David Bowie on social media that seems about as common as referring to Ziggy Stardust. How people are responding to a cultural figure so long-lived and influential reveals some interesting generational differences.

Early Gen X-ers remember his musical personas from Ziggy Stardust through the Thin White Duke. They imprinted on him via the radio, the turntable, and MTV.

Millennials make up a good part of those referring to Labyrinth. They seem to recall his role in the movie more than his crafting of the soundtrack. This reflects a pattern I've detailed earlier (here and here) about how their only memories involve pop culture rather than the outside world, and how movies, TV shows, and video games replaced what should have been real-life experiences.

Unlike an audio-visual narrative like a movie or an immersive video game, music does not simulate or substitute for a real-life experience. Escapist Millennials are not drawn much to music in the first place, they remember little of what they do hear, and they remain emotionally attached to even less. So they're going to remember Bowie as the character of the Goblin King, and not the singer of "Magic Dance" and all the other great songs from the soundtrack.

Late Gen X-ers are also remembering his performance in Labyrinth, but equally for the music as for the persona. This movie played a special role in their development, as the final event in what was a mini-phenomenon during their childhood -- dark-toned fantasy films starring youngsters who find themselves without adult protection in a topsy-turvy world. (See footnote for a list.) This genre came and went during just a five-year period (1982-1986), so the elementary school-aged children who made up its audience were born from about 1970 to 1980.

In their minds, the Goblin King isn't just some cool character from a cherished childhood movie -- he's a reminder of the shadowy people who the unsupervised children of the 1980s could have run across while out roaming around public places, a real-life memory association that is lacking among the Millennials.

And nobody could have played that role better than Bowie. He needed to be more than just a cookie-cutter villain, more of a trickster whose anarchic tendency was seductive. For the boys, it meant bending the rules without getting caught. For the girls, it meant the allure of the intimidating yet tantalizing older man. (It's clear from their responses that late Gen-X women had a huge crush on the Goblin King.)

Consequence-free rule-bending and attraction to older dreamy strangers -- two qualities of the Eighties youth atmosphere that these late Gen X-ers remember with more than a twinge of awkwardness, almost like they expect to have seen him on one of those public service announcements after G.I. Joe or Jem reminding them to be cautious around strangers who invite you into their car. Awkward as those memories may feel, they're still a defining mark of their maturation, and they can't help but fondly remember the Goblin King.

Bowie's songs for Labyrinth had a similar effect on their budding audience, introducing them to more mature sounds and themes rather than patronizing and pandering to them. Once helicopter parenting took off, this approach would strike their mom and dad as letting some stranger throw their child into the deep end. But the songs are simple and accessible to youngsters, allowing them to later grow into the music that Bowie intended strictly for adults.

In fact, only "Magic Dance" sounds like it was written for children and has a music video showcasing the Jim Henson puppets of the movie. However, if you were a grown-up, you would not have guessed that "As the World Falls Down" and "Underground" were not aimed at the adult contemporary demographic. Neither do the videos play up the songs' origins in a children's movie, but look like any other adult-oriented Bowie video:

So, if you're puzzled by why so many are remembering him for his performance in Labyrinth, that's why. He was the last popular figure to throw the kids into the social and emotional deep end -- for their own good -- a quality that resonates especially with children who lived through the climate of the early-to-mid 1980s.

* The genre consists of:

1982 The Secret of NIMH
1983 Something Wicked This Way Comes
1984 The NeverEnding Story
1985 Alice in Wonderland / Through the Looking Glass (TV movie)
1985 Black Cauldron
1985 Return to Oz
1986 Labyrinth


  1. Good list of movies in this vein, but I'd probably also include Legend, even if the protagonists skew slightly older (Mia Sara was all of 16 when it was shot).

  2. Did see Neverending Story way back when, the others don't ring any bells. If you check out the production design of NE S now, the costumes and colors are rather subdued. Though 80's pop culture has certainly taken on a campy reputation since the mid 90's, the style of 80's fantasy/sci-fi was most heavily influenced by the non campy style of hits like Star Wars (a late 70's/very early 80's product), Conan the Barbarian ('82), and Alien ('79).

    The most outwardly and knowingly camp movie to come out in the early 80's fantasy boom was Flash Gordon. And American audiences mostly didn't care for it. What exactly are modern snarkers and "sophisticates" complaining about when they say that the 80's were nothing but gaudy and silly non-sense? Even the less popular efforts like Krull ('83) or Beastmaster ('82) had cool production design and appealing heroes. It seems like people now are so neurotic and disagreeable that they just can't relate to actors who are more sincere and convivial. Maybe that's why 80's movies get trashed, who knows? The nineties had loads of complete shit (some of which did great business) so why leave them out? Maybe the movies are so generic, boring, and uninspired that the snarkers don't get a rise out of them. Subconsciously they know the 90's sucked so much as to be forgettable. So they'd rather not go back to them.

    Funny how they don't realize that the greatest insult is to simply ignore something. They go back to the 80's not because they were a bad period for art but rather, because of liberal insecurities and the fact that it was the last decade where sincere expression was possible. Sure, the greater experimentation could lead to some awful movies but at least the creators weren't on such a bland/self conscious/post modern leash. The constant self-awareness and fear of embarrassment/failure kills any kind of inspiration. To use a sports analogy, they aren't playing to win but rather are playing not to lose. Thus, the blandness that's infected the product over that last 20-25 years.

    Back to movie style. Nowadays, "general audience" fantasy typically is way over produced and designed. Very little darkness, shadows, fog, or ugly monsters either (the new Star Wars movie has really uninspired creature design). The non stop CGI, bland photography, and too insistent tone (either way too goofy or way too serious) makes these movies forgettable. Also, being in a low crime/high inequality (and, perhaps, using actors born in the last 30-40 years) environment means that there just isn't much sense of camaraderie among the characters. Movies made in the early-mid 80's benefited greatly from being made in a dangerous era with Silent/Boomer actors (who had grown up in a more amiable/united era than X-ers and Millennials).

    When there are few criminals and me first individualism solidifies (as it has since the later 80's), nobody really feels like anyone has their back and nobody feels much of a desire to stick up for anyone else. After all, what do you defend people from in a time like this, anyway?

  3. Dragonslayer was another fantasy movie with some teeth...the emotions and themes were more complex than you usually get in goode sire movies

  4. BA, you might want to ask this "girl" if those gay-homeless shelters were built out of cob:


  5. I've started 2 see a few comments rewrite history to make Jareth some gender-bender queer guy... Hell no! I'd venture that Bowie made more of an erotic impact on Gen X than Boomers for the simple fact that he was so unambiguously heterosexual and a picture of virility.
    It was the mid-to-late 80s, the era of the hair bands and unapologetic lust, how could "Jareth" be anything else?

  6. "I've started 2 see a few comments rewrite history to make Jareth some gender-bender queer guy..."

    Hah seriously pretty much all of the scenes with Jareth and Sarah have a sexual undertone. Just watch the facial expressions in the As the World Falls Down sequence for instance.

    1. Oh, it's so much about lust, but not in a filthy way. Bowie's pants bulge is the most risque thing.
      (Personally, I never realized he even had a "bulge" until his death when Millenials kept pointing it out. Saw a ballet when I was about four or five and the mens' "bulges", I'll never forget. When I pointed them out to my dad, he pointed out matter-of-factly that dancers have to wear those tights and that's just the way it was; I resolved to be "mature" and not "notice". From then on, I never noticed any man's "bulge" until seeing that one Rolling Stones cover.)

      What I find it fascinating is the age difference between the two and how they were able to get away with that back then; I also think it reveals his "type". I find it very interesting, but not surprising in the least, that the woman with whom he married and happily settled down with was originally from a conservative Muslim milieu. Certainly not provincial by any means, Iman retained a quiet dignity and convervatism about her that her and David's contemporaries did not have.
      I also found a transcript from the making of Labyrinth where Bowie talks about Jennifer Connelly's maturity, which is usually a tell... Add all his involvement from acting and the soundtrack (it's almost as much his movie as Lucas and Henson's) and it points to, regardless of how debauched he had been, that his "type" was "innocent".

  7. With the exception of The Neverending Story, I don't believe the movies on the list made very much money. I guess that's why they stopped making them in that style. Or maybe kids had less of an appetite for movies with that kind of tone.

    I've always been a big fan of the books on which The Black Cauldron was based. Lloyd Alexander did a good job of changing the main characters as they transitioned from youth to adulthood.

  8. To those who may have doubted what I said about how huge of a crush girls had on the Goblin King, the memories were powerful enough to bring Dahlia out of her wintertime commenting hibernation.

    And here's BuzzFeed weighing in on the matter a couple years ago. Title says it all:

    For Everyone Whose Sexual Awakening Was Caused By David Bowie In "Labyrinth"

  9. "What I find it fascinating is the age difference between the two and how they were able to get away with that back then"

    It was the '80s. Creators and audiences were allowed to explore awkward and murky themes.

    These things sound scandalous today, but they were not transgressive -- they did not up-end traditional norms, sanction the abnormal over the normal, and so on. Sarah doesn't let her whirlwind infatuation carry her past the point of no return, she ends the movie having not allowed herself to give into the temptation.

    But in order to explore those themes, there needs to be some kind of internal conflict, otherwise there's no dramatic tension and no testing of her character. If the guy were her own age, where's the dilemma? Go ahead and start a relationship, you young lovebirds.

    But if the dreamy charismatic stranger is 38 and she's 14, now we have a dilemma. And in resolving that dilemma, we can explore those awkward and murky real-world themes.

    1. Ha, ha (love it)! Found this and am just going to drop it here. Was feeling like I was the only one seeing this, but couldn't be the only one missing something so obvious:

      There's a vaguely creepy sexual tension between Bowie and Connelly during their dance sequence. "I think he's got a lot of real chemistry with her," a fellow rock critic once told me, and I tend to agree. Of all Bowie's costars, from Candy Clark to Catherine Deneuve, Michelle Pfeiffer and later Rosanna Arquette, it may be the fourteen year-old Connelly whom he generates the most intensity with. "I was just this side of getting it," Connelly said of the shoot. "Getting who David Bowie was. He was really sweet. I liked him very much."

      Me again. It's controversial, but I don't find it creepy. I don't see anything wrong with it. It's so clear to me that Bowie was a shy, but passionate type and only someone like this could draw him out more. I mean, has anybody heard the lyrics to these songs? It may or may not have been Connelly personally, but the idea. Elsewhere, Bowie says the character Jareth is drawn to a spiritual, something something virgin "that some guys like" (yeah, you).


  10. The Secret of NIMH isn't an example of the genre - the main characters are adults. The main character's journey involves a decidedly adult problem (saving her family) rather than a coming of age issue such as we find in the other cases (as noted above, The Dark Crystal and Legend are also good examples).

    Although I really liked the analysis here, I don't quite agree with it at least on one point. I'm an Xer and neither I nor any of my Xer friends remember the music of Labyrinth as anything special. I'm not convinced that many others do, either.

  11. Secret of NIMH is part of the genre because the main character looks like a child or adolescent. They really over-did the neotenous facial features just to make sure kids didn't mistake her for a grown-up. Her expressions are kiddie too -- surprised very often, when an adult would have been more composed.

    Her voice is also youthful, when she's supposed to be a widower.

    She's more like the protag in Labyrinth -- the eldest female of the children, who has to help the others to safety. So it is a coming-of-age movie -- an overwhelmed girl struggling to protect her family when the grown-ups (who could intervene) are nowhere to be found.

  12. I never saw Labyrinth, being born in 1969 I failed to see any of these films. but remember Beastmaster was one of my favorite movies from 1982

    I recall vividly the first time I hears Bowie....was hanging out with my friend and his older sister was listening to the Ziggy Stardust album in 1981, when I was 12 and just getting interested in Rock music. Sounded very hard rock to me at the time, but I had no idea he dressed and looked like a girl. I was a fan of his 70s work, growing up hearing Bowie played on the radio in the early 80s

    I recall being surprised how much his music changed in 1983 when Let's Dance was a big hit , as his music no longer sounded like hard rock. It surprised me how popular Let's Dance became...seemed like his videos were always on MTV.

  13. "I recall being surprised how much his music changed in 1983 when Let's Dance was a big hit , as his music no longer sounded like hard rock. It surprised me how popular Let's Dance became...seemed like his videos were always on MTV."

    Fun and, uh, danceable music did get more popular in the late 70's/early 80's. Not surprising that Bowie retained relevance.

    Also, Bowie was well into middle age by 1983. So he's yet another artist that discredits anti 80's/anti MTV propaganda which would have you believe that it was impossible for 70's artists to maintain relevance in the face of so many hot young new wavers and hair metal bands. As a matter of fact, 70's artists who could make catchy, unpretentious, and energetic music did just fine. Journey, Styx, Eddie Money, Rush, ZZ Top, Phil Collins, Heart, etc. didn't suddenly vanish in the 80's.

    "With the exception of The Neverending Story, I don't believe the movies on the list made very much money. I guess that's why they stopped making them in that style. Or maybe kids had less of an appetite for movies with that kind of tone."

    In the 80's, kid oriented movies weren't terribly popular. Parents/kids got their fill of kiddie stuff on TV. "General Audience" movies in the 80's that did well were often quite action-packed and even rather violent, with naturalistic characters and little to no cheap lowbrow humor. The Star Wars movies, the Indiana Jones movies, Back to the Future, Gremlins, Karate Kid and it's sequel, the aforementioned Beastmaster, and so on.

    Sure, there were some kiddie movies that made some money (like some cartoons) but they got much more popular in the 90's and 2000's.

  14. Don't forget the movie Silver Bullet - two youngsters identify a local pastor as being a werewolf, but must deal with the problem by themselves. In one scene, the older sister tries to identify the werewolf(who is missing one eye), by visiting all the adults in town under the pretext of collecting cans - the music shows the tension of interacting with hostile adults:


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