David Bowie Was an Emissary From Our Own Hyper-Personalized Future
His insistent, playful shape-shifting helped to create a freer, more individualized world.
David Bowie, who died yesterday after a year-and-a-half battle with cancer, was weird even for a rock star.
Like Bob Dylan, Bowie was a shape-shifter and a persona-generator who over the course of dozens of records and film and TV appearances was constantly evolving, mutating, and maybe most important of all, obviously enjoying himself.
He was a one-man Ovid, constantly metamorphosing, first from folkie David Jones (his given name) to space-rock weirdo to a glam monarch to Berlin degenerate to bi-sexual androgyne to "Thin White Duke" to New Wave and MTV pop master to heavy metal kid to elder rock god to you name it.
Some of these incarnations were much more successful than others—in the '80s, Richard Butler of The Psychedelic Furs reportedly slagged Bowie, not without some justice, as "a boring old fart"—but the point isn't that they all worked. It's that he constantly kept trying different things that yet all remained unmistakably Bowie, including his final jazz-inflected album, Blackstar, released just days before his death.
Bowie exemplified what anthropologist and sometime Reason contributor Grant McCracken 20 years ago called "plenitude," or the quickening "speciation" of human social types. The postwar period and especially the last decades of the 20th century, argued McCracken, saw a vast profusion of the sorts of people walking the streets of our cities and towns:
In the late 20th century, there has been a quickening "speciation" among social groups. Teens, for example, were once understood in terms of those who were cool and those who weren't. But in a guided tour of mall life a few years ago, I had 15 types of teen lifestyle pointed out to me, including heavy-metal rockers, surfer-skaters, b-girls, goths, and punks. Each of these groups sported their own fashion and listened to their own music. The day of the universally known Top 40 list is gone.
Gender types are proliferating. Whole new categories of powerful, forthright femaleness have emerged, while "maleness" is undergoing its own florescence. Gayness, which used to mean adhering to a limited number of public behavioral models, has rapidly subdivided into numerous subgroups. Many of these groups have developed their own literature, music, and even retail communities. They have become social worlds.
New species of social life can form everywhere: around rock groups (Deadheads); football teams (Raider fans); TV series (Trekkies); leisure activities (line dancers); means of transport (Hell's Angels); sports (Ultimate Frisbee); movies (The Rocky Picture Horror Show); technology (geeks).
We're all mutants these days, and that's a good thing, especially if we, like Bowie, are directing our own personal evolution.
If plenitude had an advance man, a John the Baptist, it was Bowie, whose playfulness was as insistent as it was daunting and endearing. The first time I remember encountering his visage was in a TV Guide ad for a TV appearance—or was it a full-blown special? who knows?—around the time that his 1973 album Pinups was released (I would have been around 10 years old).
Even in an era of countless shows and movies built around high-tech androids, intensive inspection of human corpses, celebrity sex tapes, and drag shows, the image is still pretty freaky and beautiful in great and unsettling ways. Is he male or female? Are those faces masks that would reveal flesh and blood if removed or high-tech circuitry. What exactly do the bodies look like? Weird, wild stuff for 1973. When I showed the picture to my parents, who were born in the 1920s and stopped keeping up with popular music before Sinatra needed a comeback, they grimaced and shook their heads not in disgust exactly, because they couldn't even really apprehend the image.
As with most celebrities and creative types, Bowie wasn't exactly sharp when it came to discussing things beyond his core competencies of music and brilliant weirdness. In a notorious 1976 Playboy interview, he said, "I believe very strongly in fascism" and called Hitler the "first rock star" while standing by everything he said "except the inflammatory remarks." He apologized for all this and more eventually, noting that he was not only young at the time but usually wasted out of his mind.
But only fools and thralls look to celebrities and artists—especially rock stars—for moral instruction and political programs. We're wiser to look toward them for inspiration and ideas on how we might expand our own horizons and think about our possibilities. In this sense, Bowie acted as an emissary from our own future, where we all feel more comfortable not just being who we are but trying out different things to see who we might become.
And unlike many rock stars, Bowie created continuity with earlier forms of popular music, not only by covering various old songs but by incongruously appearing with Bing Crosby on der Bingle's 1977 "Merrie Olde Christmas TV Special," which gave birth to the enduringly odd duet of "Peace on Earth/The Little Drummer Boy." I have no memory of watching that show with my parents, but we must have watched it together, as they never missed a Bing special and they typically enforced a must-watch rule on their kids. Worlds collide when Bowie shows up and joshes through third-rate patter with Bing before sitting down and belting out a couple of tunes together.
And what must my parents have thought when Bowie returned later in the show to brilliantly perform "Heroes," replete with mime moves? I don't know what they were thinking, but I know I was never the same again.
The government of Germany tweeted a tribute to Bowie, calling that concert, two years before the Wall was torn down (and mere weeks before Ronald Reagan's exhortation to "tear down this wall"), an imporant step in ending communist domination of East Germany: "Good-bye, David Bowie… Thank you for helping to bring down the #wall."
In 2003, he memorably recounted the emotions surrounding that performance:
Hat tip: Elena Cresci's Twitter feed.