David Bowie died yesterday.
This is a factual statement, but somehow feels implausible and a little unfair. He had just turned 69 on Friday! He emerged from semi-retirement just two years ago with a pretty good album, and followed it up last week with an insane record that feels vital while his contemporaries are making inessential solo records and cover projects. Sure, interviews and tours were still off the table like they’d been since 2006, but the man’s recent work radiated life. It felt like throwing something off-balance; the cosmos just came for an old school rock icon two weeks ago. If most of us were asked “who do you think would live forever?” I’d wager “David fucking Bowie” would be a common answer.
If you’re here, I imagine you know the beats of Bowie’s story from “Space Oddity” to Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke to bleached pophead to 90s goatee to the Blackstar. At the very least, you’re probably aware Bowie was “that redhead with the lightning bolt”. Honestly, I’m not a Bowie expert–you’d have to dedicate a solid few months to this archive panic of a discography for that–but I know and love a lot of the man’s work, and his passing’s made me realize just how much he resonated with me.
And, based on the massive outpouring of shared grief and Bowie stories, I’m not alone in that. Seeing Lemmy and Bowie go back to back confronts a sad truth: as more rock icons reach a certain age, rock icons succumbing to said certain age is going to be a more frequent phenomenon going forward. And while they’ll hurt, I can’t see many of them tripping people up as hard as David Bowie has.
Let’s talk about David Bowie and identity.
If most people get into older rock (let’s say anything before 1980), it’s going to be when they’re a teenager, and still tacking down their identity. In that time, you’re looking at guys like Mick and Keef, Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and–sure, let’s add him–Lemmy. They’re gods of cool, but it’s this very masculine white dude kind of cool that seems innate, and something your dorky ass isn’t going to imitate no matter how much swagger you affect or how detached you try to look while wearing sunglasses inside. It’s that jockish cool that, let’s face it, if you’re looking for an identity through music, you already know isn’t for you. And then, you look at Bowie during the Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane years: this campy, androgynous, bisexual alien as played by a man with dyed hair, makeup, and a killer wardrobe.
Ziggy Stardust caught on, yes because David Bowie was charisma incarnate, but also because he used life as an alien was a way to show the fluidity of identity in real-time. For kids who turned to rock because they felt like losers, freaks, or weirdos (“a little queer”, if you will), Bowie and Ziggy represented endless and exciting possibilities about self-expression. He showed that there was more to rock’s cool than macho posturing, that the genre could have a theatrical side, and how its sexual expression could be exciting and liberating (non-musical sidenote: I’ve never actually seen Labyrinth, but I’ve enough first person accounts about Bowie and his codpiece causing kids’ first “Why, hello there” moments to know it’s a Thing. Also, tell me you’ve never wanted someone to look at you the way Bowie does in this last gif). And, as he went through the years, Bowie demonstrated that said identity could take on whatever form you felt comfortable with, so long as it was what you wanted to do. Coming out of a year that Wesley Morris at New York Times called “The Year We Obsessed Over Identity”, Bowie and his many forms have a new resonance in popular culture.
That resonance also comes from the fact that, even when he was out of the spotlight, Bowie felt culturally present in a way that Dylan or the Stones haven’t for years, if not decades. Part of that was his work ethic; even as late as the early 00s, he was still releasing albums that–if they weren’t always good–at least sounded contemporary, and his 2010’s work was still fully engaged (The Next Day is Bowie’s own career retrospective, while the just released Blackstar is a scorched Earth jazz rock affair whose solemnity came into hard focus today). But the other part is how visible his legacy was even when he was still alive: he was still a known force in rock, and one of our defining pop stars underlined his influence in her first music video.
Thinking about Bowie and identity, it feels worth noting that Ziggy Stardust came to Earth to save it and spread a message of peace. That Bowie died peacefully while with his family, and not by rock and roll suicide, feels like a fitting end to that transmission. David Bowie showed us, showed me at least, that the world could be a weirder, more exciting place if you embraced your own fluidity. You might blow your own mind.