Monday, January 18, 2016

Learning the Lessons from Bowie's Ch-Ch-Changes

A song, an anthem and an approach to life.

In the days after David Bowie died on Jan. 10, there were scores of tributes that spoke of his impact and tried to succinctly describe him or his work.

Fluidity seemed to be a big theme for this shape-shifting superstar – how he moved so freely in terms of personality, style, genre, gender and sexuality. Bowie was indeed all these things, but the vast range of tributes to him both illustrated and missed one of his most fluid elements of all:

He belonged to no particular generation.

Superstars with long careers have been celebrated after their deaths in ways as large or larger than Bowie was, but his passing was unique for how people remembered him most fondly. There were those who discovered him as he emerged in the 1970s. There were those who first heard him in the early 1980s during what at the time was seen as a comeback, though the brilliance of a lyric like “Put on your red shoes and dance the blues” from “Let’s Dance” would have assured anyone immortality.

Some remembered him fondly because of the film “Labyrinth.” Some were as intrigued by the visual elements of his work. There are Tin Machine fans, and there are people who were excited about his new record before they knew it would be his last.

He belonged to each set of fans, as much as Bowie and his work belonged to anyone. And that was the true brilliance of his career.

There are few musicians who can transcend their era, much as they  might try. As much as Paul McCartney and the other Beatles continued to put out other work throughout their career, they are always going to be 1960s icons. It’s with snide condescension the apocryphal story floats around that there’s someone who asked the question, “Oh, Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?”

That remark exists because people get territorial about their generation’s music. Someone born in 1980 might love Jimi and Janis, but that love will always live under the notion that it’s not truly “their” music because they weren’t there when it happened.

This seemingly has never been a part of Bowie fandom. And never being part of a generation was his plan from the get-go. It continues to be a stunning fact that though “Space Oddity” is seen as part of the early 1970s Bowie canon in the U.S., it was first released and became a hit in the UK in 1969.

That would be the same 1969 that gave us Woodstock, Altamont, John and Yoko’s “bed-in” and songs from the musical “Hair” all over the charts.

Yet in the midst of that comes a skinny guy with a shag haircut wearing a space suit floating in a most peculiar way. Earnestness was replaced by irony, political statements were replaced with artistic ones.

“We were fed up with denim and the hippies and we wanted to go somewhere else,” he said on NPR’s “Fresh Air” in an interview that was replayed after his death.

That hippie/boomer demographic has had hold of our culture for more than 50 years. The fact that appreciation for Bowie and the return of “Star Wars” are happening at parallel moments is interesting; if there was one cultural touchstone that finally didn’t belong to hippies and baby boomers, it was the arrival of “Star Wars” in 1977. And, like Bowie, it’s one that continues to be discovered by people of all ages and eras with people claiming it as a personal touchstone and not a generational one.

As a culture, we tend to paint generations with a broad brush. Just ask the millennials, who are constantly subjected to barrages of trend stories that define them by what they eat, how they live,  where they work and, seemingly, how they put one foot in front of the other.

If there’s a lesson from Bowie’s long life of work, maybe it’s less about springing from a certain time as creating a continuum of expression that takes its inspiration from a variety of things along the way. That can be artistic, but also personal: to not get stuck in a rut because of what we’ve always done or to not be intractable in our beliefs or interests.

A world like that would indeed be an oddity, but one that would be amazing to see. Even just for one day.