I never joined BowieNet (David’s branded internet service provider, launched in 1998) back in the day — I guess I was (as per usual) behind the curve, and maybe it was a bit pricy? If I had I might have entered the contest to provide lyrics for “What’s Really Happening?” (The title and chorus were already in place; the challenge was to fill in the verses.) Even without me, there were about 25,000 entries; the winner was one Alex Grant, a 20-year-old Chicagoan. As I look at them now, his lyrics are pretty minimal — two verses and a pre-chorus:

[Verse 1]
Grown inside a plastic box
Micro thoughts and safety locks
Hearts become outdated clocks
Ticking in your mind

Now it’s time to say goodbye
Now it’s time to face the lie
That we’d never cry

[Verse 2]
All the clouds are made of glass
And they’re slowly sinking
Falling like the shattered past
Were we built to last?

But good for him. He got a $15,000 publishing contract, the complete Bowie catalog on CD, a $500 gift card to online music site CDNow, and — coolest of all — the opportunity to be in the studio when Bowie recorded the song. Producer Mark Plati remembers the session, which was streamed live on BowieNet,1like this:

That was a fun session. Alex was great. He was there with a friend, and they seemed a bit numb just being in New York and in a recording studio, especially that particular session. There were lights, cameras, journalists, and catering…. But Alex was fine with David, and a good sport. He and his friend ended up singing background vocals on the track. Still, he seemed to be in a state of disbelief the entire session.

Well of course he was! There’s David Bowie in the studio with you, singing words you wrote. It would be a hard-to-replicate high point for anyone, and must have been for Grant, who seemingly has disappeared from the face of the Earth. (When writing about “What’s Really Happening?” Chris O’Leary tried to find him but couldn’t.) Hopefully he’s had a good life.

Bowie supposedly read most of the submissions, and joked that he was holding on to the unused ones for future exploitation:

I can now nick 25,000 songs over the next few years. It’s all done for me, no prob. It’s all fitted out, I got it in a big store room. Change the odd word, nobody’ll ever know, who cares?

This was an early example of crowdsourcing; again I wonder if today Bowie would be using AI to generate “Bowie-like” material, which he would then cherry-pick for ideas he liked. Also again, I found a video for this song that was generated using AI algorithms. I’m not going to make a habit of posting this kind of thing, because I don’t want to encourage it; it’s a lazy way to generate content, and the results in this case are painfully literal. But what the hell, it gives you something to look at while you listen.

The question of “What’s Really Happening?” remains unanswered, by design, now as then. It’s an evergreen that only seems to get thornier as time goes on, but is always worth asking.