As most of you are aware, the musical universe became one degree dimmer last week when bright star and music icon David Bowie passed away from complications due to cancer at age 69.
As tragic as Bowie’s loss is, there is not much more little old me can write about him that has not already been said, whether it regards his stellar career; his contributions to music, film, and art; his gender-bending and trend-setting fashion sense; his message of self-acceptance and embracing of all things weird which impacted so many kids, young adults, and people in general grappling with how to express their true selves in a world that is often unfriendly and judgmental. There is not some previously unturned stone of Bowie’s life I can shed light on—not concerning his overwhelming creative impact on the world or the more scandalous and controversial aspects of his life, elements that many are saying deserve more attention, even in the wake of his death. There is not anything new I can add to this depressing conversation, other than perhaps to question how a person could mean so much to so many people, be so missed following his departure from this world, and yet the collective we have never really known him. How can a musician like David Bowie touch so many lives with just his voice as a vehicle?
Celebrity deaths in the music industry are always publicized to the umpteenth degree as their life stories become fodder for biopics, documentaries, and five-page magazine articles. Their music receives a post-mortem play boost across radio and VH1 Classics. They permeate every aspect of our lives for a few sad weeks, then we grudgingly move on. The visibility of it all can detract somewhat from whatever feeling of personal loss one might experience following a musician’s passing. Maybe the artist was your personal hero, maybe their music got you through some tough times, but that’s the problem with losing a celebrity—they aren’t yours at all. Rather, they represent a collective, public entity that means different things to different people. And if all this is true, how can we miss them on an individual scale, as if they were our friend in a true, physical sense? In David Bowie’s case, that problem is easily solved. Bowie was a chameleon in a musical sense and in a much broader spiritual sense. He was—and I mean absolutely no disrespect when I say this—like your imaginary musical friend. You could take what you wanted from his music, from his image and performances, and apply it individually to your life in a way that felt personal and real, a relationship rather than a one-sided fan-artist rapport.
What made Bowie different is what made him so relatable. He proved with his lyrics, fashion, and showmanship time and time again that to be famous, you didn’t have to compartmentalize yourself into a heteronormative, traditionally masculine heart throb. You didn’t have to become a one-dimensional caricature of your gender or sexuality. You didn’t even have to define your sexuality or anything about yourself as a person in order to be universally admired, even loved. That says something. That sends a clear message contradictory to nearly every other unspoken and accepted societal rule to a kid in the suburbs struggling to deal with her sexual orientation, or to a straight boy who feels he can’t tell his buddies that he likes watching Say Yes to the Dress at home. That says that your weird, atypical self is perfectly normal, and that says we should celebrate yours, mine, and our individuality rather than condemn it to permanent, repressive silence.
Whether that is a message you received in 1967 or two weeks ago when you first heard “Lazarus,” it doesn’t matter. What does matter is this: no matter how he touched your life, David Bowie stood for something more than just his music. And whether you feel his absence as a passing ache or as an acute, personal loss, that is okay. That is okay because David Bowie was a cultural icon we can mourn both collectively and personally, because he was there for you, whenever and whatever you wanted him to be.