I wish I could have been there when the call came in to David Bowie’s agent. “We’re thinking masked balls, hot-air balloons and red sailboats,” Louis Vuitton’s creative director will have guffed. “We’re thinking supermodels, Rococo palaces, Piazza San Marco in chiaroscuro — all shot by some controversial French director who juxtaposes gritty realism with flashy, high-energy content. We’re thinking David, rocking a harpsichord as only he can.”
They’re thinking exquisite nonsense, because that’s all fashion and perfume advertisements ever are. But Bowie was never going to play ball — let alone a Baroque keyboard instrument — if the bods at Louis Vuitton had put it that way. Bowie was going to need an exceptionally well-packaged carrot dangled in order to turn himself from the Thin White Duke into a monogrammed suitcase peddler. He was going to need absolute assurance that this wouldn’t be a commercial he’d be starring in, but a ten-second transgenerational cinematic masterpiece showcasing a track, “I’d Rather be High”, from his latest album. He would also need a large sack of cash.
Presumably, Bowie got all those things. How else does one explain the loftiest, most talented — and hitherto most elusive — figure in rock’n’roll becoming the latest artist to demean himself in a TV commercial? From Ziggy Stardust to Louis Vuitton is a wretched journey indeed. You expect this kind of bilge from the likes of Robert Pattinson (engaging in deep-sea snogging for Dior Homme), Justin Bieber (propelling a teenage girl into the stratosphere with one spritz of his perfume), David Beckham (scampering around the East End in padded underwear for H&M) or Brad Pitt (emoting with the gravity of King Lear from the corner of a public lavatory for Chanel No 5). You expect it from the long line of female celebrities whose faces lend themselves easily to mass-market endorsement. Nicole Kidman can be shot by Baz Lurhmann wrestling with the demons of celebrity if she wants to. Julia Roberts can be enchained by diamonds and Sarah Jessica Parker kick her way through a glass window to steal a giant bottle of perfume if the money’s right. Lady Gaga can have tiny little men crawl over her naked, writhing body if that’s what does it for her; I’d fully expect most of her downtime to be spent that way.
But Bowie? There’s a place you go to make advertisements like these, David: it’s called Japan. You stick a clause in the contract to ensure that these hard-core sell-outs never make it onto the internet, you pocket the millions and you hope to God that nobody will ever be any the wiser.
But what am I thinking? Bowie’s a clever guy. He knows all this. Which only leaves one possible explanation: like Brad Pitt and his unwitting comic masterpiece for Chanel, Bowie actually thinks that “Invitation Au Voyage” is good. Like all gloriously pretentious commercials this one has a title, borrowed from Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal. That means it’s classy stuff. Intellectual validation is crucial in the fashion world, where everyone’s worried that they’re a bit thick and most of them probably are. It also has a 90-second “the making of” co-film if you’re interested. Why they never made one of these for the Churchill home insurance ads is anyone’s guess; I’d love to know how they make that bulldog nod.
Bowie’s right about one thing, at least: when you’re playing the pseudo-significant game, it’s all interchangeable. Inscrutable storylines involving masked balls and hot-air balloons work just as well in pop music videos, art installations or advertisements. Still, the next time a luxury goods company puts a call into Bowie’s agent asking him to sell his soul, the singer might consider borrowing a phrase from his harpsichord ditty: “I’d rather be dead — or out of my head.”