Being strange, bizarre, or just genuinely unnerving is nothing new to rock ‘n’ roll. Hell, it’s almost a requirement now just to gain notice among the glut of other artists who stole your badass idea to wear a meat dress to an awards show. When the music video for his latest song premiered last week, David Bowie pretty much did what he’s always done and long before anyone thought it would be a good idea to focus on marketing their public image as opposed to the old-fashioned focus on creating something listenable. The challenge is being able to do both successfully (i.e. cover yourself in goat’s blood but also make an album that doesn’t sound like hot garbage).
Compared to the history of music over the last several centuries, rock ‘n’ roll is still very much in its infancy. Considering that fact, when we make the assertion that an artist is timeless, we’d best do so sparingly instead of constantly selling artists and music that way only to have them turn out to be some of those that you revisit a few years later for about eight seconds before moving on and chalking it up to puberty, a breakup, or whatever. When you understand the mayfly life span of music today, constancy is almost a pipe dream, but when it’s there, when it levels the playing field even years later, you have to give props regardless of personal preference.
So here’s David Bowie. A man who started out his musical career trying to be normal in what was probably comparable to John Waters leading a bible study that didn’t end in someone shitting, fucking, or both. Bowie failed miserably at first. His first attempt at charting was a resounding pop music wet fart against the likes of contemporaries such as The Who, The Beatles, and other “The” bands during the 1960s. In fact, Bowie wasn’t even Bowie. His name was Davy Jones which, apologies to The Monkees, is a milquetoast name when your inner artist is crying out to write a song about space or songs with topics that read like early drafts of Total Recall.
After realizing that he would never be normal in the sense of being just another in a long line of artists writing pop songs at the time, Bowie took a break from music and joined a dance class because fuck it. It was here that the guy with the moose knuckle from the movie Labyrinth embraced his inner freak, developing a persona to go along with his desire to make music that would complement said freakishness. With the release of his second self-titled full-length in 1969, Bowie introduced the world to a pop song about a spaceship, a guy named Tom, and a failure of communication technology.
Chances are if a band today were to release such a song with a similar theme they’d probably end up on one of the end-of-the-year lists where writers organize their thoughts regarding “What in the actual fuck” moments in music from the year. Not Bowie, though. It was a combination of avant-garde theatrics, that immediately distinctive voice, and a verse/chorus hook combination that’s still immediately magnetic and on regular rotation nearly 50 years later. Again, it’s a song about an ill-fated space journey—written in the 1960s—and to this day, you can find it on the radio, constantly sandwiched between acts like Maroon 5 or Owl City or some other group not singing about space drama.
Bowie spent the next five decades—that’s 50 years for those of us who might scratch our heads at such an embodiment of the Holy Grail that is “longevity” in popular music—with his creative middle finger in the air to all expectations from labels, fans and critics alike. What’s more is that while the myth and man seemed interchangeable with Bowie, the reality was somehow even more compelling with Bowie’s deliberately ambiguous sexuality serving as one of the earliest examples of popular music’s ability to be challenging without resorting to self-righteous grandstanding.
From “Space Oddity” onward, Bowie’s career was the quintessential portrait of artist as innovator. His creative fluidity not limited to mere shifts in onstage personas, Bowie’s music was just as mercurial—a balance incredibly difficult to emulate and frankly impossible to match. Even at their most surreal, his lyrics spoke to those most relatable human characteristics of love, hope, fear and, most prevalently, a wonder and curiosity at the very idea of existence itself. Regardless of where his music fell in the context of time period, Bowie’s lyrical narrative was a perspective into human experience as seen through the eyes of extravagance and enigma.
While the news of his death comes as an understandable shock to the world, looking at Bowie’s body of work reveals a sort of understanding that, if nothing else, mortality and its inherent mystery were never too far behind the glamour. In fact, those most notable aspects of his career seem oddly less bizarre, especially given the muted brilliance of his curtain call, Blackstar, released just days ago. It’s difficult to encapsulate the enormity of an artist’s influence, especially when the artist himself has hinged the entirety of his work on metamorphosis.
Call him what you will—Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, Pontius Pilate, the guy who fell to earth that time—David Bowie constructed his life’s work out of what often seemed like thin air, creating worlds, characters, ideas and stories that while perhaps borrowing from some life experience and reality, were nothing short of enchanting. Everyone remembers their first Bowie experience. For some it was that weird dude on the radio singing about “Fame” after you’d just jammed out to America’s beloved Mormons, the Osmonds, while sitting in the back of your mom’s wood-paneled station wagon. For others, like myself, it was “Let’s Dance” at the skating rink, an experience that would immediately conjure up equal parts fear and fascination for at least one person that day.
Wherever you happened to discover him, finding Bowie was exactly that—an experience of uncovering some strange yet completely familiar thing that either immediately grabbed you or made you want to listen to anything that didn’t scare the hell out of you, like maybe Bread or America or Dan Fogelberg. Whichever group you fell into, you remember that first time with Bowie’s voice, his words and his music. That kind of experience affords us the rare opportunity for words such as “legend” and “icon” without sounding like hyperbolic shills.
It’s doubtful that the memorialization of David Bowie will be short-lived, and it’s just as unlikely to think of an artist whose passing merits that kind of universal acclaim than the man from Brixton. Long after his death, it’s a sure bet that any musician who embraces the theatrical and absurd to tell their story will be subject to the oddity litmus test that was, is, and will always be David Bowie. Timelessness unfortunately has no bearing on our own time constraints as human beings, and though his voice remains forever, the man has joined the beyond of which he sang about so often and for that reason, the stars do in fact look very different today.