Was I always a fan of David Bowie? Not particularly. I mean, I quite liked him as Jareth in the wacky cult movie Labyrinth, for which he penned much of the soundtrack. Cue saxophones, bursting singalongs by a jaded romantic prince-villain, and rousing lullabies to a borrowed/stolen baby. Weird, right? I’d expect nothing less of him. During the fairytale ballroom scene, he looked fairylike and resplendent in his silvery white mullet wig and skintight pants.
My first exposure to his songs was probably the utterly awful Let’s Dance (sorry), with its terrible 80s feel that places it in the musical rubbish bin of my mind alongside Icehouse. Similarly loathed is Dancing In The Street. I’m never sure which part of that horrifies me the most. Is it the outfits? Or is it his dancing with Mick Jagger? Bowie, you’re better than this. Stop. This does not a Golden Year[s] make.
Lyrics from his song Changes were included as a preface to the 1980s movie The Breakfast Club, about teenagers speaking truthfully to their hallway enemies about the difficulties of adolescence. Molly Ringwald insisted to director John Hughes that the song was relevant for the film and its characters, and he later used them in a black screen during the introduction.
And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through.
– David Bowie, ‘Changes’
Never before do I think an adult has so efficiently sidestepped an assumed role of instructor, mentor, authoritarian. Perhaps therein lay his appeal to so many youth audiences many decades after the fact.
It wasn’t until my late teens and early twenties that I really perceived the strange power that Bowie had. He still feels like a silent hand, a puppeteer of sorts with an alarmingly wide reach throughout pop culture. I was born in 1984, and Nirvana were the very thing during the mid- to late 1990s. Despite lead singer Kurt Cobain’s tragic passing in 1996, their album Live on MTV continued to rack up sales for a ridiculously long time. It’s one of my favourite albums of all time to the exclusion of the non-live tracks. The set featured covers including Bowie’s ‘Man Who Sold The World’.
In my late teens I would stay up watching Rage for hours on end, high with elation on all the cultural capital this show was endowing me with. It was then that I saw the video for The Heart’s Filthy Lesson. I loved it. Industrial elements had forced their way in to alterative and rock genres. Its gritty sound, raw scratchings of audio, and shaky film editing with saturated, dark tones felt fantastically depressing and powerful. In hindsight this is the only time I feel he may have co-opted an existing trend, rather than leading trends. Certainly his later work on the Blackstar album was arguably far more unique, authentically ‘Bowie’ and beautifully presented, visually rich and narrative-driven as a whole. Regardless, each of his works demonstrate his ability to undergo metamorphosis, something that could probably not be said as truly about another musical artist of our time.
Addressing the impermanent nature of human life, and the ways in which we try to explore and enjoy that life which may be fraught with challenge and tribulation, was always part of his artistry. One of my university lecturers (Josie Arnold) told us that “music is democratic and it is about us; whoever we may be. It need not be elite or exclusive; but its genres participate in defining groups, communities, individuals.” That he worked (and was idolised without match) across so many genres is testament to his interest in connecting with any individual who would like to befriend another outcast. An especially unique outcast on the planet earth that’s blue, where there’s sometimes nothing we can do.