Tuesday, 12 January 2016

With Bowie's death what we are celebrating is ourselves

Would it be too strange to propose that Bowie's death - announced yesterday afternoon Sydney time about 5pm - had somehow visited me in a dream that I never actually had? Why or how else could I have written about loss and music just 30 minutes earlier? Strange blogpost anyway ('Beguiling the world with simple songs'), I thought as I was writing it. Full of evil portents and gloom. Nightmare stuff, the kind of thing you'd want to whistle away as you walk down the street. Hack! Pshaw!

But we see the strangenesses proliferate with this death. First there was an almost universal disinclination to believe the news of his death until it was absolutely confirmed by multiple reputable news outlets. Then the notion that Bowie - who had lived with the cancer for 18 months, and had kept news of it to a small circle of close familiars - had somehow put the news of his death into his last album, which anyway emerged from the studio just days - wonder! - before his ultimate and complete physical dissolution.

Talk about theatrical. And so this was all Bowie. All sparkle, mirrors, glitter and make-up. All costumes and odd outfits and strange album cover designs. All appearance. All fabricated. All show.

Fabricated? But why then the outpouring of celebrations of his life - a public version of grief, which is essentially a private thing in our culture - from millions of people who found something of themselves in his art, something essential and real. Surely he was the real authentic. The thin white duke riding serene on a chariot formed of the blessings of millions across the cloudy hemisphere and into the setting sun like some Apollonian cowboy. If anything, Bowie was more real than anyone else. How else could it be so easy to shuck off one disguise and don another if the outward appearance were but a manufactured relique belonging only to a specific interval of time? What is essential lies deeper inside, and this was what Bowie told us about when he sang those songs to ward off evil on Friday nights.

Beguiling the world, indeed. His simple songs sustained us for years and years. It was surprising to me to see on social media how passionate some people were about this death. Especially those people who live on the margins, people whose personae might have presented them with difficulties during those restless years of youth when we are all still trying to find ourselves. There was some deep attachment severed with this death. Some debt owed to Bowie by so many people. And they paid with their accolades yesterday. In fact, the stream of verbal tributes continues today as well. It might easily go on for weeks. And the strange thing is that despite Bowie's own debt to the mechanisms of mass culture each person he touched in these ways believed that they had a unique and special link with the singer. It was personal always. Hence the passionate tributes now.

In a real way Bowie represented something more than just the accumulated effect of his various guises over the years. He was always changing - as he said in his famous 1972 song, 'Changes' - just like the culture that enveloped, fed and sustained him. It was out culture. We owned it, and so in a way Bowie was our creature. We bought his albums and chanted his songs from in front of the stage. So this celebration of a singer is also a mass conspiracy because in essence what we are celebrating is ourselves. That generation of post-War groovers and boogie-artists. Bowie is us, and we are Bowie. 

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