The impenetrable persona of David Bowie

In the aftermath of David Bowie’s death on Sunday, January 10, the internet has exploded with various articles on his life, his lasting effect on nearly all aspects of modern pop culture, and his most recent and final album Blackstar, which came out only two days before the artist succumbed to liver cancer, a disease he had been battling for over a year. Most articles written about Bowie focus on his ability to vacillate between and combine music styles within the same song and to immerse himself in various characters of his own creation. The BBC, as well as other publications over the artist’s more than forty year career, has taken to calling him a musical “chameleon” after one of his own songs, while the Guardian has released a plethora of articles covering nearly every aspect of his personal and professional life, and The New Yorker has taken a much more sentimental look at Bowie’s own personal character.

While Bowie certainly did have a knack for recreating genres and taking sounds and styles he heard to new extremes, it is sometimes taken for granted that there really was just one man at the root of all these performances and characters, and perhaps that’s how Bowie himself preferred things. In his early career, Bowie, or David Jones as he was originally known, struggled to find one set group of musicians that he could cooperate with creatively before finally deciding to present himself as a soloist, which is how he has remained in public perception ever since, despite the numerous duets and brief experimentations with more group-oriented collaborations.

As a child he quickly took to any sort of artistic effort, playing various instruments from the piano to the ukulele, and immersing himself in dance. The thought of a young Bowie striving to achieve stardom through whatever mode possible brings to my mind something Johnny Depp said about a year ago now at a film premiere where he called the idea of actor-musician crossovers “a sickening thing,” despite the fact that he himself dabbles in music. Depp may, however, have had in mind the series of Disney Channel actors and actresses that had transformed into pop stars after their sitcoms’ main constituent of viewers had aged out of the Disney fan base, rather than figures like Bowie. Regardless, David Bowie’s various forays into different fields of performance, especially at a time when modern art itself was swiftly disengaging from the dogmas of genre, speaks more to his own expansive capabilities than it does to any hungry pursuit of fame and fortune.

What has most struck me about David Bowie’s character, after watching what amounts to only a handful of the numerous clips from his interviews available online, is the difference in the way that Bowie interacted with the press as compared to the clips we see of celebrities being interviewed today. While it has become common practice to closely examine the quality of the line of questioning directed at performers in recent years (Recall, for example, the response to that painfully awkward interview with Cara Delevigne last year), artists have been dealing with dismissive, baiting, and sometimes just plain rude interviewers since at least the mid-twentieth century. Despite his loud costumes and vibrant on-stage presence, Bowie comes across as shy and aloof during most of his interviews, even during one conducted in 1964 regarding his involvement in the “Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long Haired Men” as a teenager. Although the artist seems to have become a bit more open to discussing his own personal feelings in addition to his music, revealing to an interviewer at the BBC in 2002 how shaken he was by the World Trade Centre attacks in New York and that he has an “orientation towards the apocalyptic,” Bowie still seemed to take a certain delight in contradicting all of his interviewer’s attempts to analyse the meaning of his new collection of songs.  

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In the coming years, fans and rock history scholars (surely there must be a degree for that somewhere), having been freed from the potential for rebuke from the man himself, will try even harder than before to break into the psyche of this rock legend, potentially altering the legacy that Bowie left behind. In some ways, Bowie’s newest album seems to preempt any attempts to co-opt his life story, though thus far it has only led to further speculation. It’s safe to assume that the artist would be happy to know that people will continue to enjoy and be awed by his music for generations to come, but his work has also always seemed to be more of a project in personal improvement, with Bowie striving constantly to best his own creativity and stretch the boundaries of conventionality, rather than an effort to reveal himself to the public. Perhaps then the best way to listen to his music, and his new album in particular, is not to listen with judgment about what each lyric or chord signifies, but rather just to listen and appreciate.