David Bowie: Nothing has changed – Everything has changed

Since David Bowie’s death on 10 January 2016, much ink has been spilt on assessing his legacies and his position in popular culture. Even more tears have been spilt, but the complex reasons for this grief have been harder to express. The mean-spirited views of certain commentators, who took it upon themselves to preach what the appropriate level of mourning for him should be, haven’t helped. In the social media storms that followed this, the focus has been on public grief and media technologies; how western cultures deal with pain and loss; and the relationship between the personal and the public. These spats have also been characterised as being between fans and the indifferent.  

I suggest though that this division has not been between those who are obsessive Bowie aficionados and those who aren’t – it has been between people who understand how and why culture matters, and those who are suspicious and baffled by the fact that people may have such a profound engagement with a cultural figure. It has been between those who readily map their sense of cultural, political and personal belonging (and alienation) through music, books, art, films, television etc, and those for whom cultural activities are simply pleasant diversions. For many, identity can’t be adequately expressed via conventional political channels or institutions such as the family or the nation, and it is through art where that negotiation takes place.

I, like many others, was attracted to Cultural Studies as a discipline for this very reason. It gave shape to both vague and palpable feelings of cultural discomfort and isolation, and to anger at oppression, in its obvious and more oblique forms. It also gave people permission to take popular culture and identity seriously, gave them the confidence to connect this up with a wider politics and validated what they experienced from their specific subject positions.

But for me, before there was Cultural Studies there was David Bowie.

Before I knew about feminism, I understood that when you were a girl who loved pop music and mentioned this to a boy, it did not necessarily lead to an equitable and fruitful exchange of opinions. Rather, it was taken as an invitation to be lectured to about what the right music was and why what you liked was trivial and wrong. In recent years, memoirs such as Viv Albertine’s Clothes Music Boys, have given voice to the micro politics of gender, music and gate-keeping, but then, with no language to express this, I just felt cross with the young men who took ownership of Bowie by carefully explaining what the ‘proper’ albums to like were and which were not ‘real’ Bowie (usually what I liked). This would shift over the years as Bowie dogma changed, but resisting a ‘line’ and understanding that his music was too varied and multi-layered to be approached in this confining way was a critical lesson to learn.

Before I knew about the ‘death of the author’, I understood, based on the observation above, that it was futile to attempt to link Bowie’s biography and thoughts to his lyrics, music and album covers in an effort to uncover singular, definitive interpretations. These songs would change in meaning over the years as I mapped my own sense of despair, alienation, joy and politics onto them. That is what the best art allows you to do.

Before I knew about black cultural politics, I was suspicious of people who dismissed Bowie’s funk, soul and dance albums as being less meaningful than his more rock-orientated work. Let’s Dance is now rightly celebrated, but at the time there was no shortage of people who disliked it, not only on the grounds that it was commercial, but also because it was more straightforward. Accompanying videos that critiqued racism and colonialism, and shone a light on indigenous Australians, spoke to a generation of ‘others’ around the world, excited to see such narratives explored against the background of perfect pop music. The message was indeed straightforward, but that didn’t make it commonplace in 1983. The impact of these subversive images circulating on television is only now being properly assessed (e.g. Let’s Dance: Bowie Down Under [2015]) but at the time this seemed to have little currency amongst the Bowie cognoscenti.

Before I went to university, the idea that it was possible to think conceptually and be interested in artistic and cultural movements beyond one’s backyard had already been subliminally absorbed. This can be an audacious leap for working-class kids, but Bowie not only referenced the cabarets of Berlin, Brecht, Kabuki theatre, Orwell, etc, etc, but he also made thinking and creativity exciting and romantic, and something that we all had a right to.

Before I realised I could be the perpetrator, as well as victim, of cultural arrogance, I had had a conversation with a young man in the 1990s about our mutual love of Bowie. I asked which era he favoured, ready, I think, to give my own version of lectures I had long been on the receiving end of. I was silenced when he answered: ‘This one’.

Before I understood words such as ‘authority’, ‘power’ and ‘dissent’, this happened outside a record shop in Edmonton, North London: aged seven or so, I stood transfixed by the cover of Aladdin Sane, and refused to bend to the increasingly vehement and hectoring insistence of the adult with me that the man on the cover was an ‘idiot’ for painting his face like that. I didn’t challenge him but I didn’t acquiesce either.

This week I bought a music magazine. The same image was on the front cover. The woman serving ran an angry finger over it grumbling that it wasn’t clear if he was a man or a woman. ‘I never liked him’, she said. Nothing has changed. Everything has changed.