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Bowie at 76: A Reflection

Today would have been David Bowie’s 76th birthday. On the occasion, I thought I’d take a few moments to reflect on what Bowie means to me. Its no small effort to post daily entries in this blog, and this blog is the successor to a project launched in the year of Bowie’s death where I wrote about a song of his every day throughout 2016 on Facebook, as a tribute. So I’ve been writing about Bowie for quite a while. What am I getting out of this? What do I get out of Bowie’s music? What do I get out of learning more about Bowie?

There are aspects of this blog project that have value to me for reasons that only tangentially have to do with Bowie. I am at a point in my life where I don’t have many other occasions to write, whereas in the past, for school and then for work, I spent a good portion of almost every day writing. I like to write. Writing helps me think. Analyzing anything at all helps my cognition in general, helps me better assess a situation and navigate through life. I’d be able to sustain enough interest to write a political blog, but my current job is apolitical and I think that kind of thing would be problematic. My thoughts about “Life on Mars” will cause me no problems at work.

If you read this blog, you will have noticed that of late I have used Bowie as an excuse to write about some other topics. In that there are so many Bowie songs that at least touch on so many topics, I have come to reflect on many of them as a way of organizing some of my thoughts. In that respect, Bowie as a lens through which I see other aspects of life has the effect of providing a theme that connects what would otherwise be discordant topics.

So, OK, but why Bowie? Well, obviously, I really like Bowie’s music. More than anything— more than meaning, more than symbolism, more than whatever it is he had in mind, I like the sound of Bowie’s music. It’s kind of a reality check on myself to realize there are some Bowie songs I don’t actually like, and that I like some of his musics more than others. Because there’s such a vast array of his songs that I do like, that reality check assures me that my predilections are sincere and not simply an expression of fidelity to a brand.

Bowie’s is the only human voice I have heard (almost) every day since the late 1980s. That’s a lot of time to contemplate what it is I’m hearing. After a (short) while, the question of why I keep listening falls away because the answer is simply that I like the sound. But, though I can have Bowie on in the background, I often really listen to his songs. In so doing I often think about other things. Bowie’s music has essentially been a kind of life-soundtrack, so I have personal memories wrapped up in the experience of listening to the music. His lyrics are often cryptic, which gets me thinking about things that might not have ever occurred to Bowie himself. In that respect, listening to Bowie is akin to walking through a memory palace with a museum of natural history annex.

There’s much I don’t get from Bowie’s music. I don’t have an educated understanding of music itself. When I read or hear Leah Kardos, whose videos I post on this site, I become acutely aware of my own ignorance. So, I don’t come close to fully appreciating what Bowie was doing with the music itself. While surely I recognize the mood of something like, “Kooks” is happy and “Warszawa” is bleak, I don’t understand the language of music.

I don’t see Bowie as a wise man or philosopher. I don’t see him as a role model. I can mine some life lessons from some of his lyrics, but that has more to do with me than those lyrics. If there is a coherent theme that runs through from “Space Oddity” to “I Can’t Give Everything Away” (the last song on Blackstar), it is impermanence. Transformation is impermanence— things that go from one state to another. Time and space are impermanence, though for Bowie, space can serve as a kind of stasis (“out in space it’s always 1982…”), but time overtakes space. Major Tom comes back, transformed and corrupted. Transformation, for Bowie, might hold the illusion of hope, that the transition will be from a lesser to greater form, but I actually can’t think of a single Bowie song where that’s the outcome. Instead, civilizations descend into dystopias, rock and rollers become junkies, actors crack, the kids kill the man, after five years the world comes to its end and the pretty things eventually go to hell. With doom and decay impending, Bowie doesn’t cast much judgement about what we do in the interim, but at the same time he doesn’t pretend that decisions made now don’t result in later costs. Aside from that, meaning is subjective, artifice is sincere and weirdness is its own reward.

Rather depressing, actually. I’m convinced all that’s in there, but Bowie himself repeatedly signaled that his music, and art in general has less intrinsic meaning than meaning assigned by those experiencing it. I have rarely read about Bowie trying to clarify what he meant about a piece of music (actually, I can’t recall ever reading him clarify what he meant). Instead, he would find different ways of saying that his songs meant whatever we wanted them to mean. That stance, coupled with Bowie’s constantly changing styles and characters suggest a kind of hollowness. But I can’t let Bowie off that easily— there is a coherence to the greater body of Bowie’s work. His unwillingness to explain himself simply put more on us, but also served as a permission slip to just like the sound.

Even Bowie’s chameleon-like ch-ch-changes contained their own continuities. Starting with Bowie’s fourth album, Hunky Dory, Bowie would drop a heavy hint at what was coming next. Some of his earlier works also foreshadow the future, but I think Bowie became more deliberate about it when he decided to put a rocker like “Queen Bitch” on what otherwise was an album that would have been at home on a coffee house record player. Diamond Dogs began the transformation from glam to plastic soul, Station to Station went from there to art rock and so on. Actually, I think Bowie made a few hard turns. Let’s Dance was a big departure from what he had done previously. Bowie made a conscious decision to go mainstream. Instead of taking the Elton John route of still wearing outrageous costumes, but cuddly rather than threatening costumes, Bowie instead opted for Zoot suits and fashionable hair. (In that respect, even this change harkened back to something that came before— there’s a picture of a 16-year old Bowie that looks remarkably like Bowie circa 1983).

Bowie’s shift away from his pop-incarnation was just as severe: Tin Machine was a rejection of 80’s Bowie, and many of Bowie’s 80’s fans rejected Tin Machine. Bowie bounced around motifs in the early 1990s before settling on slower-paced, reflective period that took him to the end.

What does all of that do for me? Well, Bowie was 22 years older than me. So he navigated phases of life ahead of me. What he did with his life was very different than what I’m doing with mine, but on some level I could map the energies of youth, the mid-life crisis, the settling into middle age. Blackstar telegraphs both the inevitability of the end and also the promise that there’s still something to work with on the way out.

All that is to say that despite the hard-stop that Bowie’s death meant for his artistic output, he still has left me a road ahead. I can’t say for sure how long I’ll be writing daily content for this blog (it is a time commitment), but I doubt there will be a point I stop listening to Bowie.

Because, at the end of the day— I like the sound.

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