David Bowie: something happened on the day he died

Critical Perspectives offer their thoughts on fan responses to the singer's death

A concert at Brixton Academy in London pays tribute to the late David Bowie on the day the musician would have turned 70. Video: Reuters


Arising out of the first ever symposium dedicated to considering David Bowie’s work, our  book examines Bowie’s multi-faceted career up to the release of The Next Day. In response to David Bowie’s unexpected death on January 10th, 2016, we would like to add some further thoughts about Bowie and fan responses to his death in particular. While much of the mainstream media’s coverage of Bowie’s life and art underplayed just how radical and subversive a figure he actually was, fan responses were much more illuminating about the weight of Bowie’s cultural significance and reach.

Apart from the sheer volume of traffic across social media – 4.3 million tweets were posted about Bowie within 24 hours of his death – the days following Bowie’s death saw spontaneous gatherings of fans in places closely associated with the singer. Fans participated in communal gatherings in New York, Berlin, Dublin and Brixton, for example, to talk about David Bowie, to share their grief, to sing his songs, to dress and look like him and crucially to express what he meant to them in their personal lives.

Bowie was and is a reservoir of hope for his many fans. A recurring motif in the responses of older fans in the days and weeks following January 10th was the extent to which Bowie’s emergence in the early 1970s was truly radical. The performance of Starman on Top of The Pops in July 1972 in particular; his ability to destabilise societal norms and values; his fluidity in terms of gender and sexual identities, his capacity to reinvent himself and his engagement with questions concerning mortality and spirituality were repeatedly referred to.

As manifestations of genuine grief, many fans engaged in the production of media and other forms of content. Places, like Brixton, in south London, saw the creation of sacred spaces dedicated to Bowie. This reminds us that while organised religion is in sharp decline, the sacred is still a feature of the social world and is in evidence within many popular culture settings. Fan-created Bowie shrines sprung up with offerings of flowers, pictures, posters and crucially fan essays. Pilgrimages were made. Communities – real and virtual – were created and recreated.

Various versions of Pierrot, Ziggy Stardust and the Black Star icon were on display on the wall to the side of Morley’s department store on Tunstall Street, Brixton. Fan essays posted in the places associated with Bowie were particularly revealing. One of the many Post-It notes in Brixton stated: “RIP Starman, You Blew Our Minds”; another short hand-written note said: “Without you I would be a different person. Thank you for the songs, they made me realize I wasn’t alone in how I felt.” A longer fan essay posted on the wall at Heddon Street, London (the site of the Ziggy Stardust album cover photo of Bowie) detailed the imaginative relationship that a young female fan had with Bowie’s (2013) album The Next Day. The overarching and recurring theme of these fan creations was their significance in terms of people’s emotional lives, evidencing powerful connections between Bowie’s art and people’s own biographies.

Many of the chapters in our book note how Bowie’s work engages with feelings of dislocation and alienation. Bowie was a survivor who managed to overcome drug dependency and significant mental health issues through using his creative genius. His final album recordings The Next Day and ‘Blackstar deal openly and honestly with the complex issues of existence and mortality. Over five decades Bowie managed to capture the zeitgeist (culturally, politically, spiritually) and to speak directly to millions of people. As this collection demonstrates, in addition to being attuned to a wide canvass of musical influences ranging from industrial, punk, electronica, hip hop, drum and bass and jazz, Bowie was a well-read and informed artist who drew upon a deep well of wider influences such as Buddhism, German Expressionism, philosophy, communications theory, mime, oriental culture and Jungian psychology. He utilised these influences and insights to create his own unique art.

Like the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, Bowie had the capacity to intrigue and to keep fans and critics alike guessing. Perhaps Bowie’s real strength was his capacity to synthesise complex ideas and make ample use of them in his creative work across many art forms. His vast contribution as a songwriter; performer; recording artist; music producer; actor; film producer and painter meant that he was truly a Renaissance man. Bowie’s creative outputs were routinely multilayered and replete with many inter-textual references. This was a practice that he maintained right until the very end.

In spite of the many challenges presented by his failing health, in late 2015 David Bowie managed to record two videos to accompany his Blackstar album. As parting gifts to his fans, the videos for the songs Lazarus and Blackstar are encoded with layers and layers of possible meaning. In Blackstar the figure of the spaceman referencing Major Tom in Space Oddity and Ashes to Ashes has been transformed into a jewel-encrusted skeleton. In the Lazarus video Bowie wears a striped outfit, which recalls one he had worn previously on the rear of his album Station to Station. In both videos his eyes are bandaged, implying imminent execution. The presence of buttons over the eyes signifying, perhaps, the ancient Greek tradition of placing coins on the eyes of the dead in order to pay Charon the ferryman of Hades to carry them over from the land of the living.

In publishing this collection of essays our intention is to engage in a serious way with the creative outputs of one of the most important figures within popular culture who managed to erase the artificial boundaries between high and low culture. In Blackstar David Bowie sings of somebody else taking the place of the song’s central character. It will be a very long time before someone manages to displace David Bowie and his art.

David Bowie: Critical Perspectives co-edited by Eoin Devereux, Aileen Dillane and Martin J Power, of the Popular Music and Popular Culture Research Cluster, University of Limerick, is out now in paperback from Routledge Books

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