My first thought was that it had to be a joke. Whether or not the act would’ve been apropos to their life and work, it’s been speculated that a number of artists have faked their own death. But for Bowie, it could’ve been just another stage of his career. Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke to The Man Who Fell to Earth to Pierrot to this man in the blindfold with buttons where his eyes should be. David Bowie meets the Grim Reaper, maybe. The decision was even imagined for Bowie in Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, a film so closely modeled after Bowie’s life that Bowie threatened to sue Haynes.
In the movie, Bowie stand-in Brian Slade “dies” on-stage in order to kill his glam-rock persona and slip into the sleek, whitewashed pop of the next decade. To Haynes’ vision, Bowie’s transition from glam rock to pop represented the death of a sexual icon, a human being literally alienated by the idea of a single, static identity. Haynes had the luxury of hindsight, his perspective likely skewed by the creative nadir Bowie hit post-Let’s Dance; but, at the time, Bowie’s transition from Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) to Let’s Dance was yet another challenge for him to conquer, another mountain in the musical landscape for him to carve his face upon. Bowie was never simply about rock, even if what we’re experiencing right now is very much about that genre: This is the death of a creative, illuminating, and brilliant human being; it’s also the death of a rock star—add as much emphasis to that title as you can, think about it in its most energetic and archetypal configuration of a person. Even if I wasn’t around to witness most of it, I know that’s who and what David Bowie was.
I was reading a (good) longform last week about the 10th anniversary of The Strokes’ First Impressions of Earth (a Bowie title if there ever was one). In it, the writer made reference to a quote from The National’s Matt Berninger, who lauded The Strokes for their influence and impact on the sound of music today, saying they’ve “maybe influenced more bands in the last 10 years than [Nirvana, The Smiths, Nick Cave, and Tom Waits] have in the last 25.” I was surprised to read that. I like the Strokes. I still listen to them. But Berninger’s praise also reminded me that the scale for how my generation defines a rock star or a rock band has, in the traditional sense, diminished. I’m 23 years old and was able to see the Strokes rise and fall in far less time than that. The Strokes were at their peak for 2.5 albums; David Bowie had “it” for a 15-year period that yielded no less than nine classic albums and a couple more that would qualify as very, very good. Our only analogue today is Kanye. In a decade, we might be saying the same thing about Kendrick.
Is that how Bowie would define a blackstar? Something that resonates even in death?
Regardless, a rock star to my mind is found more often in hip-hop than in rock music today. This isn’t a bad thing; hip-hop is the most vibrant genre of the past 25 years (Bowie, for his part, would agree). But it is a different thing. And that fact, coupled with my age, is why I can’t fully comprehend Bowie’s impact when his music was released. In fact, for as much as I gush about Bowie right now, I only became close to his music about seven months ago after I stumbled around a David Bowie roller disco in Prospect Park. I apologize if I’m glossing over or misinterpreting history at any point, but a nearly 50-year-old career and body of work is a lot to digest in that little time. I know about his phase of consuming just red peppers, milk, and cocaine during the recording of Station to Station (a diet which yielded his best album). I know that he pushed back against boundaries of style and personal expression, some of the lines that separated men from women in the public sphere. I know that his artistic identity was always changing, from the edges of metal to palatable, consumer-facing pop.
But, mostly, and like many of us, I just know my own experiences with Bowie. I’ll always remember how “TVC 15” and “Beauty and the Beast” and “Changes” and “Warszawa” and “Modern Love” made me feel when I first heard them. I’ll always remember heading to a bar for a David Bowie-themed party to unfortunately discover that I was the only person in the whole place who had committed enough to dress up for the occasion (I went with the dependable staple: the face paint from Aladdin Sane). I’ll remember not feeling embarrassed by that; I was happy that I cared enough to know that Bowie was worth standing out for.
And I’ll always remember shouting in an abandoned building in Detroit on New Year’s Eve—2016 just minutes away—the lyrics to “Young Americans” with a group of my friends. If those things are all I ever get to really have with Bowie, then I’m good. I missed out on “the moment,” but Bowie was the type of musician who could still make one happen 40 years after he released the song. It doesn’t make sense to talk about him in the past tense when his voice is still carrying through time. It’s similar to how we don’t know that a star is dead until years and years after it’s already burned out. The light we see—at that point a memory of the star’s existence—is what constitutes our encounters with the object. The void where it once resided is something we can’t touch. Is that how Bowie would define a blackstar? Something that resonates even in death?
For Bowie to release an album like Blackstar so close to his end was a fitting exclamation point. It’s a work loaded with a hidden meaning that could only be uncovered by the heaviest of circumstances. It will be mined for years to come as the last document of a man who knew that he was on his way out. And, as executive producer Tony Visconti has confirmed to us, it should be. To paraphrase Clement Greenberg, Bowie’s life and art didn’t just overlap, they coincided. His death was no exception. Bowie has made a work of art that brushes up as closely to his last words as one can hope, and even seems to go beyond them. It’s an elegy both to and from the void. In that sense, this is just another stage of his career.
That’s what you do when you were around to see a rock star die, even if you weren’t there when they were doing most of their living. You forget about the history you missed, “the moment” you weren’t there to see.
Still, Blackstar wasn’t the piece of music I thought about when I heard the news this morning. It was “Young Americans.” I keep thinking about that line: “We live for just these 20 years / Do we have to die for the 50 more?” and the pain that’s coming out of his voice, that understanding of what it’s like to be afraid of the rest of your life. I keep thinking about the fact that he died just short of 70 (even though he was living every bit of the 69 years that he got). The whole recording is so electric in that classic sense of the word, with the intonation that our parents would use when they’d discovered something really fucking impressive, something that wakes you up. I keep thinking about that fact that, even though this was Bowie’s “plastic soul” record, at no point throughout the song does Bowie’s commitment to finding his own, true soul waver or become self-conscious. He’s singing about our collective death, the state of affairs in America, how we lose our innocence, the compromises we all make just to live, what’s it like to die without really dying.
Mostly, I keep thinking about how I’m going to go to a karaoke bar after work today with some of those same New Year’s friends—them the same age as me—and I’m going to sing “Young Americans,” and they’ll sing their favorite Bowie songs, and we’re all going to be a wreck while we’re doing it. And I can’t wait. Because that’s what you do when you were around to see a rock star die, even if you weren’t there when they were doing most of their living. You forget about the history you missed, “the moment” you weren’t there to see. You sing their one damn song that makes you break down and cry. You do it somewhere everyone else can sing with you.
Gus Turner is a Managing Editor at Complex, and you can find him on Instagram.