David Bowie has died, as I’m sure you well know by now, and it is very sad. The usual things have happened following the death of a person of renown: the family comment, the tweets of support, the Prime Minister blathering about himself as a teenager. And as I write this, I am listening to the Diamond Dogs album (my favourite) and I am able to play and replay, as I do so often, the howls of a man I have never met. I can hear him take gasps of breath. I can hear the sibilance of his teeth. It’s very intimate, the relationships we have with singers we listen to frequently, and it makes us feel close to them in a rare and unusual way.
When I spoke to my 21-year-old brother about the news, he said, “it’s the most shocking celebrity death I’ve experienced.” Although I agreed with him, in that I’ve not felt this way about the death of someone famous before, the phrase rankled me a bit, as “most shocking celebrity death” sounds like a shady sidebar ad, or something from a magazine cover. “Celebrity” is somehow a seedy word, it smacks of tacky endorsed perfume. It seems too broad, too cheap, too universal – there are A lists and B lists and Z lists with celebrities, and David Bowie, although he is known and beloved all over the world, isn’t broad, cheap or universal.
David Bowie was – is – an icon; I don’t believe the word really applies to anyone else in quite the same way. As anyone fortunate enough to see the V&A exhibition David Bowie Is a few years ago, he far exceeds the category of “musician”. He interweaves music, film and fashion, of genders, of art, which make him belong to the public and to 20th Century culture in a way other artists have not. We get more than the sounds of his voice on the radio, we got his image, reinvented over again. He exceeds the regimented passing of time – because he was never passé, he was never outdated, he always had something new, exciting and experimental, as we can well hear in his very last and latest album Blackstar.
David Bowie did weird things. Weird, amazing things, which captured the imagination of the public, and evolved with each decade. He wrote songs about outer space, before the Moon landing. He wrote songs about sexual ambiguity. He wrote songs about dystopic futures. He practically invented his own language, finding inspiration from the juxtaposition of nouns across newspaper columns.* But for all their weirdness, his songs were hits. He made misfits mainstream. This skinny young bloke from Brixton made himself into an alien, a being that defied all existing conventions, paving the way for so many artists, rebels, scary monsters, and pretty things after him.
* David Bowie talks about his Verbasizer programme in the 1997 video Inspirations : https://youtu.be/H7Sgq0XoxPw