The iconic rock musician David Bowie died on the 10th of January 2016 at the age of 69, just two days after releasing his final album, Blackstar, on the 8th—which was, incidentally, also his birthday. The sample reflective essay explores Bowie’s life and career, along with a reflection on his death.
- The essay will begin with a discussion of the general arc of Bowie’s life and work.
- This will lead to a consideration of some of the main personas Bowie adopted over the years.
- The essay will consider the circumstances of his death.
- Finally, it will shift into a sociological reflection on the outpouring of grief that occurred with the passing of Bowie, including through social media platforms, and the potential significance of this display of emotion on the part of the general public.
Overview of Bowie’s life and works
David Bowie was born in South London on the 8th of January, 1947. His last name when he was born was actually Jones; he changed this to Bowie primarily in order to avoid professional confusion with another David Jones who was active in the relevant fields. According to Bio’s page on Bowie, his star within the music industry first began rising with the release of the single “Space Oddity.
Bowie has said was inspired by Kubrick’s film, 2001: A Space Odyssey; and “Bowie’s next album, The Man Who Sold the World (1970) further catapulted him into stardom” (paragraph 9).
From this point onward, Bowie continued to develop his music career, while also branching off into acting. For example, he played the title role in a 1976 film called The Man Who Fell to Earth. This career diversification makes a great deal of sense if one bears in mind that Bowie has perhaps come to be known first and foremost for his penchant for perpetual transformation.
Indeed, Bowie seems to have even outdone Bob Dylan in the extent to which he has constantly shocked and surprised the critics and public alive over the course of the evolution of his career. For example, after rising to success, Bowie invented a persona for his next work:
“He claimed he was gay and then introduced the pop world to Ziggy Stardust, Bowie’s imagining of a doomed rock star, and his backing group, The Spiders from Mars” (paragraph 11).
The only thing that was really constant over the course of Bowie’s entire career consisted of this talent of his to reinvent his style and persona, ability to develop successful marketing strategies, and consistently explore unknown territories of the imagination that the contemporary culture of his day could not even begin to fathom. It is not for nothing that Bowie developed a reputation over time for being an enigmatic figure who it was all but impossible to pin down as an artist.
Bowie’s various personas
It is worth reflecting more closely now on the personas that Bowie adopted over the years, including his conversion to the Asian religion of Buddhism. Of course, his first transformation consisted of christening himself David Bowie in the first place, changing it from the Davy Jones that he was born with. As a young man, Bowie (still known as Jones):
“considered becoming a monk and spent an entire year studying under a Tibetan lama. Eventually growing bored of Buddhism, he went on to study music and take up jazz on his plastic saxophone. Nevertheless, a series of unsuccessful post-rock’n’roll bands left the aspiring star a little disheartened” (Oppenheim, paragraph 5).
In a meaningful sense, then, it could be suggested that Bowie’s first major invention of persona consisted of the effort it took for him to actually emerge as a creative artist in the first place. But of course, when people speak of Bowie’s personas, they mean the ones he invented within the context of his musical career itself.
One of the most iconic of these personas is (as has been mentioned above) Ziggy Stardust. As Oppenheim has described this figure: “Face daubed with a lightning bolt and mullet hairstyle dyed crimson red, Ziggy Stardust was a bisexual rock star alien who acted as a messenger for extra-terrestrial beings. Dressed in a
“Face daubed with a lightning bolt and mullet hairstyle dyed crimson red, Ziggy Stardust was a bisexual rock star alien who acted as a messenger for extra-terrestrial beings. Dressed in a multicolored Lycra jumpsuit, Bowie’s androgynous, wafer-thin doppelganger came to redefine an entire era of rock’n’roll” (paragraph 2)
Another of Bowie’s key personas was the Thin White Duke: a kind of sociopath masquerading as a romantic, this figure wore a simple white shirt and black pants. The biographical evidence indicates that Bowie’s cocaine usage was at its highest point of his life when Bowie took on this persona (Oppenheim). Other minor personas adopted by Bowie included:
- Major Tom
- Aladdin Sane (also read as “a lad insane”)
- Halloween Jack
In general, these various personas featured in one or several of the albums made over the course of his career. That is, the albums were written from their perspectives, and Bowie himself adopted the costumes of the characters during his shows.
This diversification of Bowie’s creative personality through his personas perhaps helps explain the enormous diversity of the works he produced over the course of his career. Lynch, for example, has argued:
“among rock stars, Bowie influenced more musical genres than anyone else, living or dead. He is, in that respect, the most influential rock star” (paragraph 2).
Likewise, Garratt has indicated that Bowie has had a lasting influence in the field of fashion, as various designers over time have drawn inspiration from the costumes designed by Bowie for his various personas. There is a strong relationship between the breadth of Bowie’s influence in popular culture on the one hand and his penchant for inventing and inhabiting personas on the other. Instead of simply finding a particular niche within the music industry and settling within it, Bowie consistently pushed limits and sought out new creative possibilities and outlets.
David Bowie’s untimely death
Like any untimely celebrity death, Bowie’s demise perhaps proved to be especially traumatic to some as a result of all the personas he had taken on over the course of the years. As Als has plaintively put it:
“This was not supposed to happen. Ever. Because he had been so many people over the course of his grand and immense career, it was inconceivable that he wouldn’t continue to be many people—a myriad of folks in a beautiful body who would reflect times to come, times none of us could imagine but he could” (paragraph 1).
That is, Bowie’s capacity to create and shed personas almost effortlessly seems to have produced around him an aura of apparent immortality. Sadly, however, this was not the truth of the situation. Bowie was a mortal man like any other; and on the 8th of January 2016, he met his mortality. The present writer was at a bar when this news broke, and he saw people literally in tears over the event, unable to believe that the Internet was actually telling them the truth.
Cause of death
The cause of death was liver cancer. And if his passing came as a surprise to almost everyone, then this was because this was exactly what Bowie wanted. Gallagher, for example, has explained:
“David Bowie managed to keep the scale of his supposed liver cancer secret from all but a few people close to him. Legendary producer Brian Eno, who last worked with Bowie on his 1995 album Outside, paid tribute and revealed the musician emailed him a week ago, in what he now realized was a goodbye message” (paragraphs 1-2).
Presumably, Bowie did not want the publicity and attention that would have come his way if he had made it public that he was dying from liver cancer. He opted instead to share this news with only the people closest to him, like any ordinary man and not a superstar musician. There is a clear dignity and nobility about this move on his part, and it is commendable that the people he entrusted with this information did not break his confidence.
It is perhaps worth reflecting for a moment on the actual timing of Bowie’s death. In some respects, this aspect of the situation is almost more beautiful than tragic. Unlike young celebrities, such as Prince, who died in their prime, Bowie was a rock star who lived to the age of 69—an impressive feat, if one considers the lifestyles that rock stars tend to lead. Moreover, he was actually able to experience his 69th album and the release of his final album, Blackstar, before passing a mere two days later. If any work deserves to be called a swan song, it is thus clearly this one. The witness also gets the uncanny sense that Bowie stuck around long enough to see through his final business, and that he left the world as soon as he was content that this business was done. Of course, this is something of an illusion: one cannot of course choose exactly when one dies from terminal cancer. Nevertheless, there is a clear sense of aesthetic coherence and closure present in this arc. This is perhaps fitting for a man who insisted on adopting persona after persona, thereby essentially making his own personality an aesthetic work that in some ways transcended the music he created.
Sociological reflection on mourning
The enormous outpouring of public grief over the passing of Bowie has led to at least some commentators writing about the sociology of mourning that is implied by such an outpouring. In particular, social media platforms have played a central role in enabling people to express their feelings about this event. This has also given rise to what Garber has called the grief police:
“One recent consequence of that collective drifting [away from coherent communal rituals], especially as the confusion expands to digital platforms, is the rise of grief policing. The notion that there is but one way to grieve and that deviation from that way is wrong. The tendency to tell mourners that, essentially, they’re mourning too much, or not enough” (paragraph 3).
With the passing of Bowie, the tendency has been for critics of contemporary culture to affirm that the outpouring of grief on social media has been so extreme as to be almost obscene or even ludicrous, and that a strong inauthenticity surely characterizes at least a good portion of these expressions through such ephemeral forms of media.
Dent has somewhat humorously, but nevertheless seriously, proposed the following maxim, dubbing it Bowie’s law:
“Grief is a delicate thing and too much internet mourning can make hypocrites of all” (paragraph 1).
In particular, across social media platforms, one’s thoughts and feelings regarding the passing of Bowie tended to morph into personal identity symbols, with differences or disagreements between friends and acquaintances on this becoming extremely personal in nature. At some point, one wonders to what extent people were actually mourning Bowie the man per se, and to what extent people began simply wanting to defend their own positions and thoughts at all costs, as is unfortunately, the general custom on social media platforms.
A broader point that can be made is that the passing of Bowie has perhaps revealed how unmoored culture has become in this late modern world. In the past, people had coherent real-world social structures through which they could express grief in ways that were widely recognized as appropriate by the broader culture. Now, though, as so much of social interaction has shifted onto the Internet, all the old rules have in effect been nullified, leaving people emotionally adrift in general and especially when it comes to processing a complex and difficult emotion such as grief.
Reflecting on David Bowie’s life, accomplishments, and death
In summary, the present essay has consisted of a reflection on the life and the death of David Bowie. Considering both Bowie’s work and public reactions to his death, the general conclusion can be drawn that Bowie has always tended to hold up a mirror to the audience, revealing things about themselves that they perhaps never suspected. This was true in how people responded to his life, and it is true in how people have reacted to his death.
Als, Hilton. “Postscript: David Bowie, 1947-2016.” New Yorker. 11 Jan. 2016. Web. 24 Jan. 2016. http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/postscript-david-bowie-1947-2016.
Bio. “David Bowie Biography.” Author, 2016. Web. 24 Jan. 2016. http://www.biography.com/people/david-bowie-9222045.
Gallagher, Paul. “David Bowie Died from Liver Cancer He Kept Secret from All But a Handful of People, Friends Say.” Independent. 11 Jan. 2016. Web. 24 Jan. 2016. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/news/david-bowie-died-from-liver-cancer-he-kept-secret-from-all-but-handful-of-people-friend-says-a6806596.html.
Dent, Grace. “Bowie’s Law.” Independent. 22 Jan. 2016. Web. 24 Jan. 2016. http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/david-bowie-grief-is-a-delicate-thing-and-too-much-internet-mourning-can-make-hypocrites-of-us-all-a6823226.html.
Garber, Megan. “Enter the Grief Police.” The Atlantic. 20 Jan. 2016. Web. 24 Jan. 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/01/enter-the-grief-police/424746/.
Garrett, Sheryl. “David Bowie’s Style Legacy: ‘He Stole Ideas from Everywhere.” Guardian. 11 Jan. 2016. Web. 24 Jan. 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/jan/11/david-bowie-style-icon-fashion-legacy-aladdin-sane.
Lynch, Joe. “David Bowie Influenced More Musical Genres than Any Other Rock Star.” Billboard. 14 Jan. 2016. Web. 24 Jan. 2016. http://www.billboard.com/articles/news/6843061/david-bowie-influence-genres-rock-star.
Oppenheim, Maya. “David Bowie: A Journey Through the Iconic Singer’s Ever Changing Personas.” Independent. 11 Jan. 2016. Web. 24 Jan. 2016. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/remembering-david-bowie-a-journey-through-the-iconic-singers-ever-changing-personas-a6805651.html.
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