My heart seized a little this morning at the news of David Bowie’s passing. It’s kind of silly how you can miss someone you’ve never known and haven’t even really thought of in a while. Suddenly every Bowie song of my adolescence was replaying in my head. I was there, floating in my tin can with Major Tom at the launch of Apollo 11. I saw Mary Lou Parkinson and myself in her bedroom belting out “Rebel, Rebel you tore your dress!” before we even knew what a quaalude was. My melancholic teenage heart resonated with “Turn and face the strange, ch-ch-changes!” Strange fascination, fascinating me was right up my alley. Old songs are bittersweet things, aren’t they?
I think there must be something deeper, more personally existential that we feel when a pop icon dies. Some part of us dies also. It’s a swift, unwelcome reminder of the transience of all human life. When I was about eighteen, I recall my dad in his green brocade recliner in our living room, quietly mourning the passing of a movie personality. I didn’t get why he even cared. I get it now.
I’m back studying art history this fall, taking a class on Gender, Art and Society. It always amazes me how much I don’t know that I don’t know. I hadn’t really even considered questions of gender upon art, besides the obvious historical lack of attention to female artists. But gender in art is a big topic, one that Bowie was among the first to challenge. His flamboyant, androgynous alter ego Ziggy Stardust paved the way not only for performance art, but also for more wide-spread acceptance of sexual fluidity.
My kids don’t know who Bowie is or the impact he’s had on music, performance art and culture. He’s been called a genius and a visionary and perhaps rightly so. We can thank him for glam rock, New Romanticism, for pioneering rock video, for marrying theater and popular music, for ushering in punk, for making androgyny acceptable. I can’t help but think that music might look very different without his influence.
UK artist Helen Green paid creative homage to five decades of Bowie’s chameleon like transformations in her beautiful animated gif. I always appreciate when art inspires art. It helps us all live on.