Much to my delight, the number one story in Google Trends as I left the office today was related to one of my pop culture heroes: David Bowie. The specific story that captured the attention of America today was about a tribute performance that Lorde did for Bowie at the 2016 Brit Awards. Recently, I was disappointed by Lady Gaga’s Bowie tribute performance at the Grammys. I love Lady Gaga and I love David Bowie. I was convinced that her performance would be heaven on earth, but for me, it was drastically overdone and miscalculated. I applaud her creative energy, but it was so off base.
First off, she tried to cram so many of his songs into one 7 minute piece, making the performance incredibly manic and disjointed. I couldn’t get into any singular part of the performance because as soon as I hooked onto a song, it was transitioning into something else. In my opinion, David Bowie isn’t really a “Greatest Hits” kind of guy. Yes, he was a musical icon, who has many well known songs. But most of those songs have a crescendo like quality. You have to listen to the full song to get the desired effect. For this reason, the brief nature in which Gaga covered his songs was completely unappealing, and borderline disrespectful to his greatness. Additionally, though I loved the kimono nod to Ziggy Stardust at the start, the white jumpsuit (and the dancing that went along with it) that she wore for the majority of the performance was more reminiscent of Elvis or even Elton John, but not David Bowie, which is incredibly disappointing, because he had SO many iconic looks!
Bowie had a way of commanding the stage with a small collection of powerful movements. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Gaga’s frenetic performance. Even Nile Rodgers in a cameo appearance couldn’t save it for me. I believe that Gaga loves Bowie. Having tracked her career from the very beginning, I can see the clear influence that he had on her work. It’s hard to think of any of my favorite artists who weren’t touched by his powerful influence. Gaga did everything she could to prove this devotion, right down to getting a tattoo of Bowie’s face on her rib cage 24 hours before the show. Alas, to me, it all seemed very gimmicky. I wanted something that honored Bowie’s incredible career in a more understated respectful way. Rather than blaze through 10 songs in 7 minutes, I wanted someone to really nail 1 or 2 songs in their full glory, so all of the powerful meaning would be kept in tact. I got this dream tribute in the BRITS performance, in which Lorde, dressed in an outfit perfectly reminiscent of Bowie’s Thin White Duke character, put her personal touch on “Life on Mars” while backed by members of Bowie’s longtime touring band. This BRITS performance was understated brilliance, and it put Bowie front and center with a stunning photo montage throughout. I highly suggest that you watch it here. Being a huge Bowie fan, I couldn’t help but cry at my desk at work while watching it, unable to accept the fact that this man who made such a BIG impact on my life is gone.
I had been waiting for an excuse to write a long form essay about my love of David Bowie for quite some time. Now, with the perfect SEO backing, I can put my long overdue love note on this blog!
To understand my love for David Bowie, we have to go back to the beginning. Growing up, I was incredibly awkward. Pudgy from a young age with a weird name to boot, I have always stuck out from the crowd. When I was a young child, this didn’t bother me much. I was too focused on Nickelodeon and N*sync to care about what other people thought of me. But, when I reached my middle school years, I became quite insecure. I had an older sister in high school who was blossoming before my eyes, with her physical looks and scholarly pursuits. A tri varsity athlete, homecoming court winner, and ASB president, Jess was everything I wanted to be, and more. And yet, there I was with my overweight body and Bucky the Beaver teeth. I didn’t know how to embrace my imperfections.
Lucky for me, around this time, a savior came to me in the form of a CD I spotted one day at Wherehouse Music (RIP). I was drawn to this CD because of the intriguing scene on its cover. There was a man standing confidently on his doorstep. Everything around him is dark, but he and his clothing light up the picture. For me, this CD stood out from the stacks of other albums because it was so simple, yet so intriguing. Little did I know that the music inside the CD was anything but simple. This CD was “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” by David Bowie. My interest had been peaked enough that I decided to take home the album. It was on sale. Reflecting back on this experience, I miss browsing CDs in physical stores. In the digital age, it’s harder to have a personal experience sifting through albums like I had that day. And boy, the discovery of that CD had a bigger influence on my life than I ever could have expected.
After listening to Ziggy and the Spiders for an afternoon, my mind was blown wide open to a whole new world of music. Starting from a very young age, I learned the beauty of classic rock from my mother, listening to the Stones and the Beatles in the car on the way to school. I’ve always felt like an old soul, and my musical education helped me tap into that. But, Ziggy and the Spiders were SO different. In particular, the first time I heard the guitar riff at the end of “Moonage Daydream,” my jaw dropped to the floor. Right around this time, the Internet was becoming a thing, so I looked up photos of the band online. I saw WILD outfits. I was mesmerized by Ziggy’s androgynous appearance. Before this point, I didn’t really know what androgyny was. I knew that David Bowie had to be Ziggy, and therefore Ziggy was a man. But, I still had the thought: is this supposed to be a man or a woman? The mysterious allure of it all was so interesting to explore. In the years afterwards, I would continue my interest in societal norms and what makes us uniquely men and women. I got an emphasis in gender studies in college, in part so I could dive deeper into the seed that David Bowie had initially planted in my brain. But, that first album was only the beginning of what Bowie would do for my life.
Much to my delight, after thoroughly wearing out the Ziggy Stardust album, I discovered that there were SO many more David Bowie eras to explore and enjoy. I worked my way through his incredible catalogue of music, jumping back to the folk rock of “Space Oddity,” then forward to the Thin White Duke and “Heroes,” then jammed my way to the “Let’s Dance” era. Every period of music he brought something different to the table. He was constantly changing and evolving. In particular, his song “Changes” would have a tremendous effect on my self esteem. When I first heard the lyrics “turn and face the strange…don’t make them grow up and out of it,” I truly felt like Bowie had written this FOR me. It’s okay to be different, and just because I’m different, doesn’t mean that I have to change to be like everyone else. At the time, I desperately needed this message and he delivered. In his music and his ever changing style, I found who I really am.
When Bowie popped up in one of my favorite movies, Zoolander, I didn’t fully recognize him until his name came on the screen, for I associated him first with so many other iconic looks. The ultimate shapeshifter, Bowie had a fabulous way of flipping the page before his fans got too comfortable. In his eyes, to be comfortable was a bad thing. To embrace your true potential, you have to be willing to go outside your comfort zone. One of my favorite David Bowie quotes that I constantly apply to my own life exemplifies this idea perfectly: “If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.”
Following my Bowie musical education, I had a newfound confidence and I viewed the world through an entirely different lens. By the grace of God, heading into high school, I lost a lot of baby weight, which naturally made me feel more self assured. But beyond that, I was ch ch ch changing in other ways, thanks to Bowie. Previously, I had never done anything interesting with my hair, not even layers. I was too afraid of what might happen if other people didn’t like it. Post Bowie, I got my first real hair cut, then my first highlights, then my first full dye job, and I became hooked to the cycle of reinvention. I am now known as a chameleon, like he was. In present day, friends often tell me that they can’t spot me at events because I have a different hair color or cut than mere weeks before. I am widely known for my restless attitude with my look and my bold style choices. During high school, I would lovingly refer to the female student population as “the ponytail wearers association of America.” But, my senior year, I went rogue and chopped off all of my hair into a pixie. I have maintained a short haircut ever since. A very important lesson that I learned from Mr. Bowie is that you don’t have to do what everyone else is doing. Going against the norm can be more fulfilling.
I have loved dressing up my entire life, even in my pre-Bowie days. But, after my Bowie education, playing dress up entered a whole new arena for me. Throughout my Ziggy internet research, I saw the incredible ways that Bowie would do his own makeup, and I wanted to emulate those techniques for my own unique look. As stated previously, Bowie wasn’t afraid to be androgynous. I have embraced that concept as well. Though I have tried them a few times, “sexy” Halloween costumes aren’t my thing. My focus every Halloween is stepping into the shoes of a character I really love; whether that’s a man or a woman is irrelevant.
This past year, I decided that I wanted to be Beetlejuice for Halloween. When I asked the salesperson at the store “where is the traditional Beetlejuice costume?” she pointed me to the “sexy” girl version with a skirt. I’m sorry, but if I am going to be Beetlejuice, I am going to BE Beetlejuice, and I will not take the second rate female knock off instead just because my gender says I should. I went all out with my zombie makeup and male attire that day and it was an immense success. My coworkers loved it and many people applauded me for my ability to see outside of the usual roles that women are delegated to play at Halloween: sexy nurse, sexy cop, sexy (insert here) etc. I can wholeheartedly thank Bowie for teaching me how to “turn and face the strange.” I plan to embrace this same androgynous attitude at Halloween this year with my most standout look to date. This look concerns another favorite male movie figure of mine and it actually has a lot of similarities to Bowie’s style from the iconic “Let’s Dance” music video. Mr. Bowie always seems to have an influence on me, even when I don’t realize it at first.
Prior to his passing, if I ever felt insecure about going big with a costume of some kind or a new project, I would often think “What would Bowie do?” or WWBD for short. Now that he has left this earth, this thought has become far more powerful. Like countless other people, I was astounded by the incredible work that Bowie did in the last few years of his life. Refusing to accept his cancer diagnosis as a death sentence, Bowie let his musical energy drive his world instead. He embraced every day as a gift and insisted on pursuing all of the plans he had previously made, and then some! This final surge of creativity brought us the highly lauded Blackstar album and Lazarus the musical. Only Bowie could be given a terminal cancer diagnosis and turn it on its head into a mesmerizing tour de force. While perfectly healthy, many people cannot accomplish anything close to the artistry that he produced during in his darkest hour. He didn’t let the cancer win. He ended his life on his terms and managed to make every minute count, setting the ultimate example that all of us should hope to follow.
Through his actions in the last few months of his life, David Bowie made it clear why he is SO deserving of the title of pop culture icon. Without his musical influence, so many current artists would not have a framework to work off of. Though I have largely covered his musical work in this essay, he was also a highly talented actor. If you’re looking for a Bowie film education, I highly suggest seeking out “The Hunger” and the cinematic classic “The Man Who Fell To Earth.” In the latter, he plays an alien who lands on earth to find water for his ailing planet, but struggles to thrive in a world so different from his own. Watching it, you really begin to wonder where the line of cinema and reality is drawn; he is THAT good.
Bowie made it okay to be different, okay to go outside of the norm, okay to blaze a new path. His innovation and creativity truly knew no bounds. Though his physical body is gone, his spirit lives on in such a powerful way, in the art that he so strongly believed in. Bowie never stopped moving, never stopped creating, never stopped evolving, because he knew that our time on earth is limited. In his honor, I strive to pursue my creative passions with 100% enthusiasm. With his example in mind, I will never be afraid to stand out from the crowd because my unique characteristics are a gift, not a fault. Thank you Mr. Bowie for teaching me how to embrace life with open arms. When I look up at the stars, I think of you, and smile knowing that the man who fell to earth has finally made it home.