What is this place?
That’s the question I keep asking myself as I sit and stare at this blank page, trying to figure out what brought me here. It’s not as though I don’t have other things I should be doing right now; as a fifth-year graduate student, my life is a series of sprawling and self-reproducing projects. There are lessons to plan and chapters to write. Articles to proof and books to read. Yet still, somehow, in this moment, this page is the focus of all (most) of my attention.
Perhaps a better question: why is this place?
That one I think I have an answer to. And it has to do with David Bowie.
Today is March 27th, two months and seventeen days after his death on January 10th, 2016. That in itself is not an especially auspicious number, but it marks the number of days I have held myself back from listening to his last album, the much-awaited and rapidly-mythologized Blackstar.
I won’t go into the range and complexity of people’s reactions to the album—others have done that with far greater aplomb. What I want to focus on is much more personal, namely, that today—this day, Easter Sunday—was the day I finally had the courage to listen to it.
Like many people, I had a complicated relationship with David Bowie, as both an artist and a human being. My fascination with him began with a chance viewing of Labyrinth at a young age and grew, ever-so-slowly, from there. It wasn’t the most conventional introduction to his work, but my interests in his music tended to diverge from the mainstream as well: despite occasional divergences, my favorite album remains The Next Day, my top song, Where Are We Now.
By the time I started graduate school, my interest in Bowie’s work had grown substantially. Despite studying ethnomusicology—a field in which critical analyses of Bowie’s work would be (and are) very welcome—I decided that my investment in him and his work was too personal (read: emotional) for me to pursue as a research subject. Looking back, I am so very glad I made that decision. Trying to finish a dissertation on a musician who dies during your project would bring a level of devastation no young scholar deserves. I sympathize with anyone for whom this has happened.
But even without the additional tie of Bowie-as-dissertation, the grief I felt (and continue to feel) at his passing was (and is) profound. Many of the artists I admire have done what artists do under such circumstances: they used their grief for inspiration. The tributes to his life, his work, have been staggering in their scope, overwhelming in their depth. Subjective though the assessment may be, I firmly believe that David Bowie’s death has inspired a burst of creative output unrivaled in this decade. Perhaps even in this millennium. He himself is undoubtedly thrilled to have nurtured such an explosive outpouring of art.
Sharing grief through community and communion remains one of the most powerful mechanisms for overcoming death; it is the means by which memory is reinforced and reconciled within larger spheres of knowing. My choice not to embrace these communal processes, in favor of a more private and personal experience of loss, in no way signals my dismissal of them. Instead, I think it points to the truly profound ability of David Bowie’s work to inspire authentic reflection in multiple spheres simultaneously. The sphere of the global, and the sphere of the local. The sphere of the collective, and the sphere of the personal. The sphere of art, and the sphere of humanity. He encouraged—and continues to encourage—expression in all of its forms. It is a wonderful, terrible, beautiful gift to give to the world, one that requires the giver to give, give, give. To give all of themselves, and all that they are, all for us.
It’s a wonderful, terrible, beautiful gift.
So when I think on this question—of why this place exists—I turn to the gift. For a long time I’ve felt the pull to express the inexpressible thoughts that puff up my brain, but I’ve lacked the confidence to see it through. This blog is my attempt to remedy that. To use the power of his legacy to perhaps carve out one of my own, small though it will undoubtedly be.
Today is Easter Sunday. The day when, according to Christian mythology, Jesus rose from the dead after three days and ascended into heaven. Bowie was by no means a Jesus figure (nor did he claim to be), and it has been months, not days, since his death. But both men have been defined by the myth: of who they are, of why they lived, of what they wanted us to know. And both men can find resurrection in the hearts and souls of their followers.
In 1972, Bowie said in an interview that “sometimes I don’t feel as if I’m a person at all. I’m just a collection of other people’s ideas.” In 2016, he released an album that responded better to that question of his humanity better than words alone ever could. Through Blackstar, he articulated a final philosophy of his own personhood: that he was a titan. He was a figurehead. And he was very, very human.
I’m not sure what form this blog will take, or where it will ultimately lead. But what I do know is that I will pursue it with as much honesty and personal truth as I’m able to muster. It may be a little drummer boy‘s tribute, but it’s the best I can do. For David, and for me.
Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre then stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a star star, I’m a blackstar)
(He’s The Blackstar)