There is nothing more attractive about a musician than audacity. We give our stars the freedom to do pretty much whatever they want, so long as they please us. The irony of that trade is they often become musically safe in order to protect the spoils that come with stardom.
But then there are those who are stars. They exist among us, but they shine hot and bright enough to keep us all warm. And David Bowie, to paraphrase an amazingly self-indulgent KRS-ONE quote, was the sun.
He knew he was a star. He had to have the biggest balls in the world to do the 1971 album Hunky Dory, a glamorously folk — or was it folksy glam? — exploration of the thrills and terror of fatherhood, his physical and emotional vulnerability on full display, then follow it up a year later with the declaration that he was the alien messiah. Just three tracks into The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars, it became clear he could be that, too. He could be whatever he wanted: the struggling human we could all relate to or the Nietszchean evolution of humanity; the soul singer who didn’t actually have any soul or the hard rocker both in 1969 and 20 years later. He seemed to be influenced by all, grateful to many, the inspiration to more and tethered to none.
Bowie was too varied to ever be seen as contradictory. His forays with styles, genres and sexualities felt like conscious explorations rather than expressions of confusion. He knew who he was, but also that he was able to take on the persona of just about anyone else.
Yet, he wasn’t finding himself. He was finding out about us, even as he invented and explored one otherworldly persona after another. Somehow, from the foundation of a thespian, Bowie managed to make revolutionary music in a world that demands uncommon sincerity from its performers.
Of all the greats of the rock ‘n roll era, few were less raw. He was measured and thoughtful, his music always having some explanation behind it — by contrast, Van Morrison can barely remember what “Madame George” is about half the time — but of course, no one puts a record on just to think. We want to feel, and we typically love those who can distill what they feel and express it in a relatable way. Bowie seemed to find these emotions in the universe and reimagine them. He’d highlight the disparate feelings and ideas in moments, bring out the most in both, then leave us to figure out what to do from there. These were art house flicks with amazing scores, stories where resolution was never easy to find.
Take “Heroes.” It describes a boundless love, but also a love with ordinary hassles (“You, you can be mean / And I, I’ll drink all the time”), and one that’s ultimately impossible. It’s passionately resigned and self-deluded until the love and anguish come together and explode, all while standing at the fucking Berlin Wall with guns and shit going off in the background. This could never happen, even though it happens every day. It could be none of us, but it’s been everyone once or twice. It’s not speaking to the love in Bowie’s heart. It’s the love all of us have felt, filtered through his incredible imagination and turned into something we can’t stop feeling.
Just watch him:
Bowie stunned us with his ability to be himself, but the most daring thing about him was his willingness to be someone else. That’s not the audacity we usually want from our rock stars, but he was too brilliant to simply be one man. Bowie’s audacity shone from his willingness to try anything, and to try those things with anyone. It wasn’t simply that he was bold enough to be like that. It was that he could back off something that worked before the world had even caught up to where he was.
And now, 69 years after he was born and days after he released Blackstar — his latest incredible album — David Bowie is gone. His star was big enough to keep everyone warm, but while we orbited around him, no one could be what he was. There’s no one to compare to him since he emerged because it’s impossible to be like David Bowie: He was better at being like us than most are at being themselves.
What will the world be like without David Bowie? We had a glimpse of that, when he went 10 years without releasing new music. Then 2013’s The Next Day was released out of nowhere, and it seemed like there would always be a great David Bowie album around the corner. Today, we have to deal with sobering reality — that there will never be another David Bowie, that we lost the only one there will ever be.