I never imagined I would be this upset by Bowie’s death. Unlike a lot of mourners I didn’t connect with his music as a teenager. By the late eighties/early nineties he was too big and too commercial to be useful to my friends and I as we set about the teen ritual of trying to define ourselves through musical taste. I thought of him in the same category as Elton John or Billy Joel: perennial mainstream global superstars who my parents liked.
His music only became meaningful to me as an adult. They’re great songs, musically – but there are lots of great songs out there. They’re interesting intellectually (mostly). And that voice evokes a powerful emotional response even in songs I’ve heard literally thousands of times.
But other singers do that too. What sets Bowie apart – for me – is the way all of those elements combine to produce a unique, very intense interior state that is impossible for me to describe except by saying ‘That is the way I feel when I listen to Heroes.’ Or any of the other great songs.
Oscar Wilde claimed that no one noticed the beauty of the sunsets of the Industrial Revolution until Turner painted them. Bowie did something similar with the way people thought and felt in late modernity. He understood, somehow, that we had access to new intellectual and emotional states that we didn’t even know about, and his music made them available to us. And there are dozens of different, unique states conjured up by the different periods and personae he adopted. There’s something mythological about the way he revealed our real but hidden selves to us by hiding behind different guises and masks.
I can’t imagine what it’s like to posses that kind of genius – it’s like trying to imagine life as a bat and seeing in sonar. It seems so wrong and unfair that someone so special could just die, like everyone else, and that he was sick and in pain for so long. I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s like having the saddest song ever stuck in my head.