The Starman sounds off: David Bowie and the power of the celebrity artist

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Following David Bowie’s death on January 10th, social media feeds filled up and subsequently overflowed with links to music videos, interviews, articles and statuses ranging from “RIP David Bowie” to heartfelt short paragraphs about his affect on that particular person’s creativity. His loss to liver cancer came as a universal shock as Bowie is one of those rare artists who has reach and touched almost everyone—because really, who doesn’t like at least one Bowie song?  

A few days after Bowie’s death, a Facebook friend of mine posted a status update urging people to support living musicians—especially local ones—instead of glorifying and idolizing dead stars they have never met. The post has since been deleted, but it made me think a lot about why this particular celebrity’s death was so different for me. A lot of the times when a celebrity dies people post just to post—a forced, often attention-seeking excuse to associate themselves with the big news. Bowie’s passing was met with admittedly some generic responses, but more notably an onslaught of tributes and testimonies to his artistic influence. Read…artistic, not celebrity.

The magic of Bowie started with the fact that one’s experience as a consumer was left to their imagination, rather than being left entirely to the musician’s vision of what he was projecting. Very much aware of the power of celebrity and how that can be misused, the pop star used the power of iconicism and pop culture as a means to promote acceptance and equality. There have been both haunting traces of Bowie throughout the years in pop culture as well as continuous album releases. Ziggy Stardust—Major Tom—Aladdin Sane—The Thin White Duke…his alter egos and innate passion for performance set him apart from every musician since his surfacing in the sixties straight through to his death this week.

As Bowie’s album sales both new and old continue to spike—his last album Blackstar was released last week on his 69th birthday—people will both revisit and discover for the first time his vast discography and unique exploratory approach to music and performance. Blackstar is for the experienced Bowie fan—a dark seven-track artistic tunnel of melancholy and jazz undertones. His final piece of work does not feel forced and weary like many veteran musicians’ later albums—but rather is immensely Bowie-esque, brimming with poetic lyricism and oddities. Some will read Blackstar as a goodbye, and maybe it is—but mostly it is a prime example of Bowie’s always evolving approach to music making. 

“Something happened on the day he died. Spirit rose a meter then stepped aside. Someone took his place and bravely cried, ‘I’m a Blackstar,’ ‘I’m a Blackstar’.”

Having enjoyed a flooring 27-studio album career, Bowie’s use of gender fluidity as at art form has altered pop culture standards of gender expression. “It’s difficult for people to appreciate now just how different the 70s were,” journalist Grayson Perry wrote for an article in The Guardian. “Things were still terribly old fashioned, the social texture was very straight at exactly the same time I was experimenting with dressing up, and it felt like Bowie was giving me and a whole generation of kids permission to explore the dressing-up box.” Even if gender expression is not something you struggle with personally, Bowie’s open use of gender to enhance the characters that made performing easier and more enjoyable for him attests to a borderless existence between art, individuality and artistic production.

When I sift through all the Facebook YouTube links to Let’s Danceand Heroes,” sketches of Labyrinth’s Jareth and photo galleries of Bowie and his wife Imam throughout the years, what is most prominent in the comments and statuses is the sense of loss of a great pioneer of performance and gender expression. As a performer whose “scandals” were associated with this, Bowie’s celebrity status was unique and powerful—just like everything he created.