Dr. Stardust, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bowie

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If someone were to write my biography, it could easily be divided in chapters according to my obsessions. Some come and go quickly, others resurface after a period of dormancy. A special few never really go away completely. Regardless, where some people may be able to simply enjoy a musician, actor, historical figure/era, or movie, I become consumed by them. I study liner notes, memorize lines, and read every interview and biographical note I can find. “Fan” doesn’t seem like quite strong enough a word once I’ve become wrapped up in something. In the words of Mandella, beleaguered BFF to the cantankerous Kat in 10 Things I Hate About You, I’m “more than a fan, we’re involved.

As of Saturday, I am involved with David Bowie.

This statement comes as a bit of a shock to me, even as I sit here wearing a t-shirt with the Thin White Duke’s face plastered across the front and having listened to a freshly downloaded copy of his latest 59-song career retrospective compilation constantly through the week. Teenage Me would never have uttered such a statement, and telling her that 30-Something Me would someday declare allegiance to Ziggy Stardust would have been met with disbelief and maybe even some disappointment.

Bowie has been a certifiable icon for the entirety of my existence. It’s not as if I was somehow unaware of him until now. For the first half of my life, Bowie existed simply as fact of life.  He was there, creating music, showing up on MTV, popping up on the radio and silver screen from time to time.  On some level, I suppose, I appreciated his contribution to music and pop culture, but didn’t really spend much time considering him or his impact. But sometime in the 90s, as my teenage self struggled to navigate what I decided was cool, I was forced to swear allegiance for or against Bowie.

As a dedicated alternateen of the grunge persuasion, Bowie was among the godfathers of influence I was expected to worship along with the idols of the day. But love of Bowie came with rules: You had to like 70s Bowie. “Space Oddity,” “Life on Mars?” “Diamond Dogs“—these were acceptable songs. Because who could admit to liking Mick Jagger duet “Dancing in the Street” in all its silliness along with Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails? Kurt Cobain chose to cover “The Man Who Sold the World” on Unplugged, after all, not “Modern Love.” But this that’s where the problem lay: I didn’t like 70s Bowie. Even with my newfound love, it’s still not my favorite era. I like 80s Bowie. “Let’s Dance.” (Put on your red shoes and dance the blues!) “Fashion.” (Turn to the left!) “Magic Dance.” (You remind me of the babe!) Yes, please.

Rather than fake a love for “acceptable” early-era Bowie, I chose instead to say that I hated him. It was perhaps, on some level, a subconscious effort to be even edgier than the edgy crowd I strove to be a part of. When “Little Wonder” started popping up on my favorite alternative station alongside the new Bush and Soundgarden tracks, I wrote it off as a desperate attempt by a washed-up star to sound like what the kids were listening to now and remain relevant. (I was totally on board with the Alexander McQueen-designed Union Jack jacket Bowie donned on the cover of 1997 album Earthling, however. I have also since come around to “Little Wonder” and other 90s Bowie songs.)

What I failed to recognize is that, really, Bowie never stopped being relevant. I just wasn’t secure enough realize it.

After years of more indifference since I shed my alternative-only music snobbery in the early 2000s, Bowie suddenly forced his way into my life again. The “David Bowie Is…” exhibit began its only U.S. run in my adopted hometown of Chicago this fall. Living multiple states away now, I made note of the fact, but didn’t give it much consideration. “That would probably be pretty cool,” I thought, more as a museum nerd than as a music fan. But then my bestie went and spoke of it as if it were a religious experience. I swooned over the merchandise available on the museum website. So, I thought, maybe I’d try to check it out when I returned to Chicago for New Year’s. As luck (good and bad) would have it, that was the exhibit’s final weekend at the Museum of Contemporary Art. By the grace of the music gods, I was able to snag a ticket due to fabulous mix of wonderful friends, changed plans, museum membership privileges, and the providence of bringing it up at just the right time.

So, on a chilly Chicago evening, I found myself mounting the steps to the museum, getting increasingly excited when I was frankly still not sure I would even properly appreciate what I was about to see. Time and maturity had brought me to the conclusion that, no, I didn’t hate Bowie, but did I really love him enough to be accompanying three genuinely geeked fans?

About 5 steps into the exhibit, I could confidently say: Yes, yes I do.

I

Love

David Bowie

But perhaps not for the reasons most people do or the reasons I expected I might, if I were to ever come around. As devoted a music fan as I am and as much as I do finally realize I appreciate Bowie’s music (and probably on some level have all along), what I truly love and appreciate about him is his status as an artist and an icon.

Part of what struck me is that his reach is so wide and diverse that you could virtually see the spawn of his influence that have surfaced through the breadth of his career while viewing the relics of his public life. Without Bowie, there would be no Gaga, no Panic! at the Disco, and, let’s face it, no Nirvana. At least not the way we know those and countless other acts to be. Seeing that he was also influenced by things that have influenced me—the 1927 Fritz Lang film Metropolis, in particular—gave me an even deeper appreciation and made me feel connected in some small way to a man I’d so long tried to reject.

I realized, too, while touring the exhibit that the wonderful thing about him is there is a Bowie for everyone. You don’t have to love each of his personas and sounds, or even love them all equally. Bowie moved on from one to the other, and so can you. But, beginning in an era that valued authenticity and simplicity in the presentation of music, Bowie chose to create entire fictional worlds around his music.  You have to appreciate the balls that took. His creativity could simply not be contained in one dimension, so he expanded it out into every conceivable dimension he could.

This is perhaps what I love best about Bowie. Each of us adopts different personas for different aspects of our lives: work self, home self, family self, self with this set of friends, self with a different set of friends, drunk self. They are all constructs of varying levels, but each has at least a little bit of us within the persona. I don’t pretend to know what the real David Robert Jones is like, but I have to believe that there is at least some of him in Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, and even Jareth the Goblin King. Bowie has shown us—for roughly five decades now—that our personalities need not be contained in a single manifestation. We can be anyone we want to be and still be ourselves.

I struggled with that idea for a long time. Never one to truly fit in, I often wondered if there was something wrong with me for not being able to easily conform, or later when I embraced my quirkiness, if it was somehow a betrayal to myself to adopt a different self if the situation suited it.  I have long aimed to be uniquely myself at all times, but I now recognize that sometimes that is a matter of degree. It may be just that I know my tattoos are there, even if hidden under layers of a business suit. But that is not any less authentic to “me” than when I’m sporting my ruby slippers and tiaras. It is why I can be equally comfortable in a leather studded cuff and motorcycle jacket at one concert, and a tank top and cowboy hat at another. I like to dress for the occasion, whatever it may be.

Through that prism, I suppose it is a bit easier to see why the exhibit roused in me a bit of a religious fervor. I went expecting to see some pieces of rock iconography, what I got was an epiphany. Without realizing it, I’d been following the Bowie model for some time now, and there before me among the handwritten lyrics, costumes, and videos was something I hadn’t expected: reassurance. I’m far from the first, only, or most innovative to follow Bowie’s lead in some way or another. But nearly 30 studio albums, dozens of acting roles, countless works of visual art in multiple forms, and the status of being revered by millions tends to show that I could have picked far worse to emulate, even unknowingly.

The genius of naming the exhibit “David Bowie Is…” is that he is so many different things to so many different people. David Bowie is a musician, an artist, an icon. He is Ziggy, Aladdin, and Jareth.  He is a rock god, a performer, a symbol.

David Bowie is an inspiration.

And finally, I realize, he is one of mine.

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Pictured: Me, right, with the aforementioned bestie and the new man in my life. It’s ok, we’re in an open relationship.

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~ by yellowbrickrodeo on January 8, 2015.

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