David Bowie doesn’t just die. He turns his death into a spectacle that forces everybody to think about the end.
Okay, Bowie’s been gone for a couple days already, the remembrances and tributes have cycled through our feeds, and it’s probably time to get back to the grating realities of Trump, ISIS, and Oregonian militias. But I woke up thinking about the Duke, for the second day in a row, maybe because his very existence was an antidote to that kind of grating drabness. Or maybe because his death itself ended up being one of his best performances.
Bowie lived, breathed, and died science fiction. Better yet, let’s call it aspirational fiction—Bowie drew from fantasy, sci-fi, all kinds of otherworldly textualities to forge his unique personas. But those fantasies were each ultimately aimed at collapsing the world around him into one that accepted who and how he wanted to be. I can’t really think of any other figure who could do that. Who bent the power of performed fiction so fully to his will, prodding cultural and social evolution along the way.
From his first hit, “Space Oddity,” to his breakthrough as Ziggy Stardust, to his final act as Lazarus on his last album, Blackstar, Bowie wasn’t just performing this mode of personalized science fiction, he was living it. Right up until the end.
He dropped the “Lazarus” video, a companion piece to the sci-fi epic “Blackstar,” in which he inhabits a world of dead astronauts, scarecrow mutants, and eternal candles, with the album, three days before he died. It is about a man, played by David Bowie, who levitates on his deathbed.
Watching “Blackstar,” it’s now impossible to think of that jewel-encrusted spaceman skull—the inevitable end of Major Tom, maybe—as anyone but Bowie’s.
It’s incredible to think that he knew millions of people would be watching him float above a hospital death bed as he was likely literally lying on one. Cueing up that glittering astro-skull on YouTube. Even at the moment of his own death, he was using the language of science fiction to goad us into thinking about our own. Pretty fitting for a man who’d made a career of using the same method to blow our minds on everything from gender politics to internet technology. To turn pop music into a vehicle through which to think about and nod along to the future.
A number of commenters have reacted to his death, for instance, by praising his androgyny and sexually adventurous stage presence for cracking the door towards acceptance of genderqueer identities. “Bowie used his unconventional, ostentatious gender presentation to challenge what the mainstream public associated with virile cisgender men,” Slate’s Christina Cauterucci notes. “The irrefutably erotic rock star who stirred the loins of both men and women, gay and straight alike, gave his audience avenues for exploring internal multitudes of presence, vitality, and desire.”
When Bowie appeared on Top of the Pops as Ziggy Stardust, she adds, then watched by some 14 million people in a much-smaller world, the impact was meteoric. Bowie did nothing less than help project a space where it wasn’t only acceptable to adopt a nontraditional gender identity, but thrilling. The centrality of the sci-fi element often gets lost in such commentary, but that's crucial, too—it pointed the whole enterprise towards the future, and an exhilarating one.
Science-fiction was just creeping onto the big screen when Space Oddity and Ziggy Stardust dropped at the end of the 60s and the beginning of the 70s, but nobody had seen a sci-fi rock god before, jamming to pop space operas. (These were not dashed-off mythologies whipped up for the sake of wearing eyeliner and looking shocking onstage, either, by the way—these were deeply thought-out, deeply weird narratives involving looming apocalypse, a race of aliens called the infinites, and something called black hole-jumpers.) The medium itself helped Bowie explore previously taboo subjects like bisexuality, with its aspirational, inclusive alienness—no wonder people who felt like outsiders themselves were turned on in droves. And it helped make science fiction seem cool, mainstream, and dangerous in a way that it’d never been before.
Bowie never relented, either. He’d adopt more sci-fi-flaired musical personas like Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke. In 1976, he became The Man Who Fell to Earth—literally an alien among humans. Even after his best-known work was behind him, he experimented with dystopian video games, his own ISP, the BowieNet, and arcane web technologies. He performed the future, while pop culture tried to catch up.
So, his death—and the thoughtfully calibrated quality of the art it was paired with—left everyone pretty stunned. A common refrain was, ‘I just figured Bowie would live forever. ‘
Typically unflappable rock stars were left speechless. I listened to former Sex Pistols and Iggy Pop guitarist Steve Jones and the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl do a truly a fascinating and perplexing hour of radio on Jonesy’s Jukebox, an afternoon FM show. Both showmen spent long stretches of airtime totally lost for words, awkwardly relayed anecdotes of their run-ins with the legend, and discussed various theories about where we go when we die. (“I think there’s an energy that binds us” Grohl said, wondering if we all harken from the big bang, and are all somehow united in the end. “I don’t want to die,” Jones said.)
Neither did Bowie. A blackstar, as many have pointed out, is a term for a cancerous lesion. So of course Bowie transformed the agent of his own demise into one last science fictional epic. Of course he’d use that language one last time to bring us a vision of death, one that is, fittingly, enormously ambitious and self-referential.
This “final record was a carefully-orchestrated farewell to his fans,” its producer confirmed. The songs (and the accompanying off-Broadway play) are explicitly about death, written for an audience he knew would be tuned in when the news broke. The first line of “Lazarus” is “Look up here, I'm in heaven.”
So instead of picturing a broken old man, we’re hearing his words, watching him levitate, seeing him perform his final vision. We’re joining him.
In “BlackStar,” we can read those twitching, uncomfortable young bodies as the next generation of misfits, buckling under the strain of their own alienation, and finding salvation in a book called BlackStar. The future’s probably in that book, and Bowie’s final prediction is simply that someone (or all of us) will step up and read it:
Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)