There was mass disbelief when news that David Bowie had died broke. He was the superhero of outcasts, the champion of the underdogs, and the poster boy of weirdos. Stranger than strange, queerer than queer, larger than life — how could someone like him die? It seemed impossible.
Then again, the impossible was familiar territory to David Bowie. He turned science fiction into rock ‘n’ roll, and vice versa.
David Bowie is one of history’s most fascinating musicians, a true pioneer. He brought theater, the avant-garde, and rock ‘n’ roll together, and blurred lines between gender and sexuality with style. Famous for evolving many, many times throughout his career, Bowie’s imagination brought an entire ensemble of personae to life. He could be a glamorous superhuman rock star from outer space, a brooding, mysterious aristocrat, or the monarch of a kingdom of fantastic creatures. His influence survives everywhere, from Kanye West and Lady Gaga to Lorde. You can bet that Harry Styles would’ve stolen a floral print suit right out of Bowie’s closet, too.
He was a master of reinvention, combining musical styles, ideas, and concepts in ways few people had imagined. He changed hairdos, wardrobes and musical styles, resulting in a whole spectrum of phases unmatched by anyone else. He always came back each time with something new and different, always blowing our minds. Nobody ever knew what he’d do next, up until he died at age 69. Whatever new project he did always resonated with a new crowd, from the ‘70s up to today.
He was a trailblazer as an artist, with a career spanning folk, rock ‘n’ roll, disco, soul, and experimental noise with results that were always interesting. His acting career was diverse too, with roles as Nikola Tesla in The Prestige (2006), the towering Goblin King in Labyrinth (1986), an alien in The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) and even Andy Warhol in Basquiat (1996) that were compelling performances in their own right. He was fearless in his craft, shattering what people thought of music, identity and sexuality.
Yet for all his fame, he was still very much an oddity. After all, he rose to fame singing about space travel, rayguns, and life on Mars. His chart-topping songs were catchy and thought- provoking. He had his fair share of ridicule and controversy, which he faced by just continuing to do his own damn thing. It was only natural for him to become the hero of generations of outsiders and misfits.
In the ‘70s, when macho Sinatras and Jaggers were at the top of the heap, he arrived as an androgynous, lanky glam rocker in bright eyeshadow. He pulled off space-age kimonos, neon green suits, and seizure-inducing one-legged leotards with ease, to arenas full of adoring fans. He flaunted a golden dress on his album art, and later settled rumors about his sexuality by announcing that he was gay in an interview. Later on, he’d marry twice, making people think again about who he was, not that public opinion mattered to him. His onstage alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust, is an enduring queer icon, celebrating the bravery of exploring gender and sexual fluidity through art.
All of the above took place because of his songs. David Bowie just wrote really great songs, and performed them well, too. He could console you or provoke you, sometimes both at once. He had so much music, you could devote ages poring over lyrics and imagery, trying to pick it apart and put it all back together. He was someone you could become someone else through, someone who knew the struggles of loneliness and madness, and rose above it every time. He knew what you were going through, superhuman and tragically human at once. Being “cool” didn’t matter.
There are some satellites whose sole purpose is to point to the stars, tirelessly emitting a sequence of signals that try to tell the void what being human is like; David Bowie’s voice was turned towards us, telling us what it’s like to be human, too, and that he hasn’t left us without knowing that we could do it on our own. As the coda to Moonage Daydream goes, “You’re not alone / no matter what or who you’ve been / no matter when or where you’ve seen…” Bowie sang that like his life depended on it. You felt like yours did, too.