David Bowie thought he sold the world. In reality, he gave it to the weirdos.
It remains his most enduring gift. Even now, it’s hard to express what this gift meant to multiple generations of weird kids and oddballs, what it did for and to us. Bowie gave us permission to be every iota of our truest selves in plain sight, to let our souls loose in public. Never before had someone been so bizarre and beautiful for all to see; in doing so he allowed us to emerge from the privacy of our bedrooms and do the same. If we manifested as glitter-dipped Martians or thin white dukes and duchesses or any other artful version of radical selfhood, then so be it. “Oh! You Pretty Things” was always about us.
Had we told him as much, Bowie may have responded by denying his personal involvement in our collective liberation, crediting Ziggy, Halloween Jack, the Goblin King, or Aladdin instead. His lone constant was change; each incarnation plunged him deeper into his essential artistic self just as it brought us closer to ourselves. Yet despite being a sizable roster of different men and extra-terrestrials over the course of his life, Bowie was always and endlessly himself.
He remained pop’s chameleon until the end, rising as Lazarus within the jazzy bleakness of Blackstar. At the time of its release, Blackstar was yet another great Bowie album, the latest excellent installment in his discography. Only now can we hear it as he intended: a contemporary requiem, a parting gift, a love letter to all he was preparing to leave behind.
For all the hardships that marked his years – addiction, his half-brother’s mental illness and suicide, financial struggles, his father’s death, the dissolution of his first marriage – Bowie loved life. Jubilation marks nearly every phase of his career, manifesting in the New Wave sparkle of “Let’s Dance,” the sexed-up hedonism of “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” the sonic explosion that transforms “Station to Station” at the halfway mark, the classy swagger of “Sound and Vision,” the sheer joy of hit after hit: “Rebel Rebel,” “Young Americans,” “Heroes,” “Modern Love,” “I’m Afraid of Americans,” “Little Wonder,” the list goes on and on. Even “Blackstar” takes a melodic and upbeat turn five minutes in. And who can forget his so-bad-it’s-good cover of “Dancing in the Street” with Mick Jagger? The video is a hot mess, but reminds us that for all the orchestrated spectacle of Bowie’s career, performing never ceased being a source of artistic satisfaction.
David Bowie’s death marks the loss of a starman, an enigma, a rebel, a seer, a plastic soulman, an innovator, the emperor of outcasts and glammed-out freaks. Who else could shriek, “Wham bam thank you ma’am!”? Who else could tap into the soul of multiple generations with such precision and power? Who else could fall to earth, paint his eyelids blue, become a cult actor and a Broadway star, inspire Philip Glass to create two symphonies, and draw inspiration from space travel and mimes and 1984 and Kendrick Lamar to create music that helped define the Western musical canon? Who else but David Bowie?
Rest in power, sir.
One day, though it might as well be someday,
You and I will rise up all the way all because of what you are:
the prettiest star.