Today the world learned that we had lost an innovator, an artist, and a one man social movement. David Bowie died at the age of 69, after an 18 month battle with cancer.
The world just celebrated his birthday 3 days ago, and he released a new album just this week. Very much in the news this week, if ever there was an icon of artistic and philosophic reinvention and vitality, it was David Bowie. And so, London awoke this morning with shock as Bowie’s son confirmed his death on Twitter.
This evening, a fellow artist asked if this was the Princess Diana of the social media era. I suppose in some ways, the response was the same. In vitally important ways, it was different.
Like Diana, the world reacted with shock at the death of an icon. Like Diana, tributes poured in. Like Diana, crowds gathered to pay tribute and had to fight through paparazzi to do so. But unlike the death of Diana, each person had a personal relationship with some aspect of what made Bowie an icon.
A musical innovator, actor, writer, filmmaker, fashion trend setter, philosopher, gender bender, revolutionary, sexual politician, businessman and master of reinvention, Bowie meant something different to each of us. Working across media and pushing boundaries and preconceptions, one thing one could say about him was that he embodied the word “artist.”
And it is this difference that made our experience so unlike that of the death of Diana.
Like all artists, Bowie comforted the outsider by providing acceptance and a way forward. And for those who had grown complacent, Bowie disquieted them with his in-your-face refusal to follow rules. I venture to guess that Bowie appealed to the teenager in us all. And in our teenage years, whether real, or metaphorical, Bowie helped us individuate.
It is impossible to compare him to Diana. Diana was a fantasy of an ideal we might want to be or a grotesque version of the person we would never want to be. Bowie told us that it was okay to be whoever we already were and whomever we wished to become. Diana was a princess, mourned at the locked gates of a palace. Bowie was an artist, mourned on the street, at the foot of a tribute, painted by artist Jimmy C.
Being in the presence of art provides a doorway into something beyond ourselves and for a moment, the art of Jimmy C, held open a doorway to heaven so we could say farewell to a childhood friend. Tonight, an artist, provided the space for us all to come out into the streets and come together to mourn a fellow artist, to share a memory, to sing a song, or to lay flowers at the bottom of an iconic image.
And together, we knew that the world would shine a little less brightly without the Starman.
I am grateful to Jimmy C for providing a space for public mourning and celebration. I am grateful to David Bowie for David Bowie who let me know I wasn’t the only alien in the world. I am grateful for his music, which inspired my own writing, and I am grateful for his gender and sexual politics that helped me find my own way to a landscape with a varied topography but horizons too distant to be relevant. His dance music brought me joy as a young adult and it is clear that I, like many, felt a sense of being kindred spirits with him. I went to Brixton tonight for myself and for all my friends in North America who wish they could have been with me.
For what are you grateful?