Today I woke up to the sad news that David Bowie had died of cancer at the age of 69.
Like most British people of a certain age, I love the music. I am not old enough to have seen him on Top of the Pops in the 70s in his full Ziggy kit, arm round Mick Ronson in a gesture of daring sexual ambivalence; I was introduced to Bowie in the 80s via the medium of home taping. Bowie was someone that my much cooler friend’s older boyfriend liked.
Here he is as Ziggy Stardust – I embarrassed the students today by singing tunelessly along to this:
Though obviously he is also famous for this:
Mock the Laughing Gnome at your peril – it’s a work of pure genius.
Anyway, as I grew older and more aware, I realised that without Bowie much of 80s pop music could not have existed – from the excesses of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet to The Smiths or New Order. He also had a massive influence on the 90s act Suede – could Brett have been Brett without Bowie’s back catalogue? Debatable.
Bowie represents a very British kind of creativity – flamboyant, arty and deeply peculiar. He gave hope to nature’s non conformists. He wore weird clothes and took lots of drugs. He did his own thing and by doing so produced music that will last forever. His passing is a terrible loss.
However, a side of me found the grief-fest that was social media today a little bit hard to stomach. It happens every time someone famous dies – other notable figures include Michael Jackson in 2009 and Amy Winehouse in 2011, though obviously nothing can compete with the orgy of grief that surrounded the death of Princess Diana in 1997.
I will never forget the strange atmosphere that followed Diana’s death; the traditional British stiff upper lip was replaced with a lower lip that trembled with emotion. In retrospect it was almost quite disturbing.
At the time I was going through some sort of love life trauma that had put me into a very bad mood. I felt depressed and sorry for myself. How much I welcomed the opportunity to cry and to emote and it dawned on me that if it was true for me, then it was probably true for rather a lot of people too.
So I guess what I am saying is that celebrity deaths are about a lot more than the death of a celebrity. They are opportunities when it is OK to feel sad, or in the case of Bowie to mourn for a time when we all sat down and watched Top of the Pops or listened with awe to home made tapes. Mourning Bowie is mourning a time – if you are middle aged like I am – when you had to wait for your idols to appear on TV or scour record shops for their music. It was a time before the endless loop of Youtube and itunes and Spotify and God knows what else turned popular culture into a big soup of free stuff that you can stuff yourself with constantly like an all you can eat buffet.
The death of Bowie takes us further and further away from the pop culture of the late 20th century. A culture that is as formative for many of us as our genetics or our education.
However, seeing that very few of us ever got to meet or know David Bowie, does his mortality actually mean very much? Do we listen to The Beatles or Elvis less because they are no longer with us? Music is immortal and the news of Bowie’s death will introduce him to a new generation. Today I played his music – as I have said – to my students and also to my children.
It lives on as long people keep playing it.