David Bowie means a lot of things to a lot of people. This is obvious with the outpouring of memorials all over social media. This morning when I woke up, upon picking up my phone the first thing I saw was someone changing their Facebook profile to Bowie’s iconic image of Ziggy Stardust. I scrolled down a little further, to see the news of his passing from Pitchfork. Unable or unwilling to react to the news immediately, I slept for another hour, dreaming of Bowie, to be awoken by my BBC Radio 6 alarm setting with tributes from on air. At least in London, mainstream media today has been almost solely and rightfully focused on Bowie’s life and influence, and so too have my friends, as I spent much of the day reading their dedications.
The sheer amount of regular people and famous fans alike that expressing sadness at his passing speaks of the man’s importance to popular culture. There is barely a strand of modern music that Bowie did not play some part in innovating in his 70s peak. His work never diminished, even if his audience became at times more niche. Being the androgynous role model that he was, his music spoke to people regardless of gender, generation and race. As I write this I am down at an impromptu memorial to Bowie which has broken out in his birth suburb of Brixton in London. Stretching from a Bowie mural and reaching down to Brixton Oval, thousands of people have congregated, laying flowers, painting faces (and statues) with the Stardust bolt and with singalongs rampantly breaking out aided with the P.A. equipment of local residents. It’s a Bowie block party and a mini-festival, with all kinds of misfits and music fans gathered together.
There’s probably a lot of reasons why Bowie means so much to so many. Most obviously is the music. Generations have grown up with songs like Space Oddity, Life On Mars, Ziggy Stardust, Heroes, Ashes to Ashes and Lets Dance sound-tracking our lives. His ability to innovate and defy expectations has made him a critical favourite, where his pop sensibilities have equally kept him commercially relevant. Most inspiring to me though, is Bowie’s approach to his own career. His frequent and fearless approach to changing up his style and identity provides a guide to how the rest of us mere mortals can too approach change in our lives. Musicians often get stuck repeating the same formulas, so too do the rest of us in regards to careers or habits. Bowie’s legacy is one of disregard to conformity – if one idea has exhausted it’s potential, move on to a new career in a new town. Just as Bowie dropped glam rock for funk at the height of his popularity, or pop for a return to his rock roots in the late 80s, we too can apply this mindset to more everyday situations. If a job or relationship isn’t working out right, moving on and reinventing is always an option. Even if Bowie makes changing your style cooler and more effortless than a great many of us ever could.
For some reason at points throughout the last decade, I’d found myself imagining what a world without Bowie would be like. Before the release of his 2013 album The Next Day, it seemed like that could come anytime, given his almost complete withdrawal from public appearances and projects. I wanted to believe, that if any of our classic rock idols, Bowie would be the invincible one (he certainly seemed the most otherworldly). With the release of Blackstar last week, it seemed like that might be true. Bowie had seemed healthy albeit a bit wizened in the last few music videos, and he seemed to have lost no energy, finding time to write and stage an off-Broadway sequel to The Man Who Fell To Earth sound-tracked by his music. I had spent this weekend internalizing the new album, which I found to be slighter but more completely realized than The Next Day. Blackstar’s jazzy and sprawling first half put the album up there with the most experimental of Bowie’s musical efforts, although the 2nd half featured a couple of classic ballads, finishing with the touching, I Can’t Give Everything Away. Sounding like Strangers When We Meet, with Low-era production and a haunting harmonica riff, it could be one of Bowie’s best songs of the last twenty years. Before this morning, I had neglected to register the many references to death within that song, and on the album. Such as this lyric from the title track Blackstar, where he appears to be acknowledging his end, and passing the torch somewhat;
Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)
I’m sure there will be many more artists that come close to Bowie’s level of success and many that imitate his chameleon approach to a music career, but I doubt that a torch can really be passed. Bowie’s passing for me signifies an end to a particular era of culture. Although some stars of 1960s and 70s music remain active, Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and The Rolling Stones to name some, Bowie’s passing seems significant in reminding how finite this era of music really is. Culturally, this is a loss up there in impact with the loss of John Lennon, Michael Jackon, Freddie Mercury and Elvis. Bowie’s loss has reminded me that these legends won’t be around forever, and neither will we. Rock music, as permanent a movement as it may seem, is a passing thing, as mortal as we are. But rather than seeing this finality as grim, we can look positively to all that Bowie has laid out for us. We may not be able to carry his torch, but we can at least take inspiration from this most ambitious, creative, trendsetting and alive of artists.
I would like to end with this sentiment from Twitter user Dean Podesta, who I think said it quite well;