As everyone has undoubtedly heard by now, January 10 marked the passing of a musical luminary in David Bowie. It only seems right, as a music column, to observe and commemorate the loss, as Bowie is nothing less than an iconic figure. He cut a wide swath in the worlds of music, film, fashion, and, arguably, gender politics. He is one of the few artists about whom one can say, without a hint of hyperbole, that he reshaped the world of pop culture in his own image.
Ask any musician or music fan about David Bowie, and you'll get myriad unique responses. Some think of him as a classic rock radio staple, and probably know more than a few lines to "Space Oddity" and "Changes." Some will remember his star turns on the fledgling MTV network, and fondly remember his radio-dominating collaboration with Chic's Nile Rodgers, Let's Dance. Others rave about his "Berlin trilogy," co-piloted by producers Brian Eno and Tony Visconti, and will eagerly tell you how the second side of the Low LP still sounds vibrant and new today. And, of course, many will recall his subtly seductive turn as Jareth the Goblin King in the Jim Henson film Labyrinth, where he added a surprisingly sexual undercurrent to a children's film populated with Muppet goblins.
The truth is, it's hard to fully commemorate Bowie — he means so much to so many. In the vast amount of ink that's been spilled about the man, one of the frequently-recurring descriptions of his large body of work is "chameleonic." Just when he'd arrived at the cutting edge of a new style, he'd reinvent himself and throw himself headfirst into something new. The only common thread among the transgressive, gender-bending protopunk of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, the cold, paradoxically detached torch songs of Station to Station, and the ebullient post-disco of "Let's Dance" is that rich, vibrato-filled voice, which, interestingly, everyone thinks they can passably imitate.
Another frequent description of Bowie is some variant of "alien" or "otherworldly." Not a huge stretch, given how frequently outer-space imagery appears in his lyrics, and that one of his most acclaimed acting performances was, as the film's title implies, The Man Who Fell to Earth. Even when his personas weren't based beyond the stratosphere, they were still unearthly. The icy, cocaine-addled, Aleister Crowley-obsessed Thin White Duke and the "cracked actor" of Aladdin Sane are not pop-culture archetypes you see every day.
Well, at least that was true before Bowie popularized them. Depending on the way you see it, Bowie either inspired legions of imitators who reaped the fruits of his trailblazing labors, or he allowed countless fans to embrace their inner Starman and wear it proudly upon their sleeves (or dresses, or eyepatches, or bedazzled space suits).
Perhaps the best way to commemorate a sweeping cultural phenomenon like Bowie, oddly enough, is through individual experience. As a musician and lover of rock music, especially strange rock music, it still seems unthinkable to me that Bowie is gone. My whole life, he's always been a vital presence, making impressive records from which we can always learn something new. While his output had slowed down from the mid-2000s until recently, I still felt a thrill when I saw the surreal images of the "Blackstar" video and heard that familiar baritone. Mortality is inevitable, even to the brightest among us, but perhaps that alien charisma had fooled everyone into thinking Bowie would outlive us all.
If someone isn't a fan of a given artist, it might sound strange to hear others talk of a pop star changing their lives. Regardless, in the many deaths of musicians I have witnessed over the years, I don't believe I've ever seen one that brought nearly the entire internet to a standstill. The ubiquitous ironic humor and avoidance of sincerity at all costs that one usually sees on social media seemed to halt, if only for a moment, as we all recalled a musician and artist who seemingly meant something to everyone. Is that impossibly high praise for a guy who made rock and roll records? Maybe. But, hey, this is David Bowie we're talking about. Everyone has something to say about David Bowie.
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