In Death, David Bowie Gives Us Earthlings One Final Masterpiece
Originally published on Slant.
Whenever someone beloved passes away, a reliable trope is to imagine that person somewhere else doing something they love. For David Bowie, it's preferable to think that the artist formerly known as David Jones isn't actually dead, but setting off on a cosmic journey to the deepest reaches of space.
He's had enough of our world, people will say, so the Starman must leave Earth to reunite with The Spiders from Mars for an intergalactic jam.
It's easier to picture David Bowie off on some distant planet simply because losing someone so influential and so enduring is just too much bear.
You'll read about the crazy outfits he wore, the longevity and consistency of a career that spanned five decades, and how many of your favorite musicians were directly inspired by his art.
But what makes you grieve so deeply for a man you've never met and with whom you most likely share little in common? What about this death breaks your heart and occupies your wandering thoughts?
In the words of one of my favorite college professors, great art devastates you. It pushes you to feel things you couldn't feel otherwise. It makes you access the parts of your brain that you could not explore without art.
Bowie's art devastated audiences for nearly half a century not just because he wrote pretty songs that wormed their way into your subconscious, but because audiences could seldom discern the line between David Bowie, Man, and David Bowie, Artist. He, more than anyone else, understood that power.
Great artists make great art. But to say that David Bowie made great art is a severe understatement. We're so devastated simply because David Bowie is art. We don't want the show to be over, but we need to leave the dance hall.
In "Blackstar," the title track on his final album, released just two days before his death, Bowie prophesies his own death and resists having his art crammed into convenient boxes. It's a prescient, clear-eyed, direct elegy of David Bowie, The Man, by David Bowie, The Artist.
I'm not a gangstar, I'm not a film star. I'm not a white star. I'm not a porn star.
I'm a star's star. I'm a blackstar.
It's impossible to squarely fit David Bowie into codified categories. Was he a man? Or a woman? Or gay? Or straight? Was he a rock 'n' roller? Or an actor? Or a pop star? A vagabond or an oracle? A human or an alien?
He was all of these things and none of these things simultaneously, existing perpetually one step ahead of our projections of what we wanted him to be. He was able to sonically channel the wide, abstract spectrum of emotion and events that encompass an individual life, be it change ("Changes), swagger ("Fame"), glory ("Heroes"), or wonder ("Life on Mars?").
His influence is both obvious and ubiquitous. Without Bowie, there is no: Lady GaGa, Arcade Fire, Skrillex, St. Vincent, Janelle Monae, tUnE-yArDs, Spoon, Marilyn Manson, Madonna, Prince, Daft Punk, Adam Lambert, Annie Lennox, Patti Smith, Michael Jackson, Tame Impala, Father John Misty, Kanye West, Radiohead. The list goes on and on in perpetuity. If you're a fan of popular music, by extension, you're a fan of David Bowie.
Bowie didn't "try on personae like different pairs of clothes." He committed fully and selflessly, allowing his life to act as a mirror for the rest of us. He gave us a soundtrack as a roadmap to access those uncharted, cranial caverns. He sacrificed David Bowie, The Man, so that David Bowie, The Artist, could devastate us.
Cover photo: Creative Commons