It is not a question of whether you are or were a fan of David Bowie, it is a question of which Bowie was your Bowie. My Bowie, at various times, was the lightning streaked face of Aladdin Sane, the dulcet voiced soul man of Young Americans and the rock god of the Orwellian extravaganza, Diamond Dogs. I also kept Station to Station and Low on my turntable for weeks at a time in the 1970’s during Bowie’s “Berlin” period and listened to David Live obsessively, especially the mash up of “Sweet Thing” and “Candidate” from Diamond Dogs. For me, as for so many, David Bowie represented a glittering, odd, unearthly reminder that life is about change, risk, madness and mayhem, and that while our domestic structures work hard to keep the madness at bay, we must be ready at all times to “turn and face the strange.”
To understand Bowie, you partly have to understand what England was like in the 1970’s and what it meant to suddenly, in the middle of this a grey, ruinous landscape of charred buildings, post-war debris, and financial collapse, find out that there is a “starman “waiting in the skies.” This was the message that British youth watching Top of the Pops in 1972 received loud and clear from a beautifully eccentric and sexy performance of “Starman” by Bowie and Mick Ronson. Dressed in shiny pant suits and wearing high boots and shaggy hair-do’s, Bowie and Ronson really did look like they had fallen to earth from some distant planet where people had fun, believed in something and knew they could change worlds. David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust told us to be receptive to the messages from Mars and other planets; he counseled youth to listen to the secret memos from the starman, to pay attention to the coded communications from other worlds; he told us that the starman would only speak to us if we sparkled (“if we sparkle, he may land tonight”), and he taught us that all that sparkles is indeed gold. And no sooner did he create a persona with which to tell new stories about sex, rock and riot than he killed the man and started again.
My first Bowie album was Aladdin Sane. I studied the cover art for some clues as to who this ambiguously gendered person might be and I thrilled to the persona of the mad lad singing of mortality, protest, drag queens and race riots in Detroit. I knew no queer people at that time and knew of few escapes from the suffocating normativity of British school life in the 1970’s. But I felt that Bowie represented something special, something just out reach, something or someone that I did not know yet but set off to encounter. With his otherworldly voice that ranged from low growls to ethereal falsettos, and with his calls to rebellion – both social and gendered – Bowie captured the emergent political imagination of a generation. He was queer before queer, punk before punk, cool long after Presley. Bowie disobeyed all laws of genre and he merged English glam rock with US soul music, rhythm and blues with jazz and funk with electronica without seeming opportunistic, appropriative or dilettantish.
Bowie’s sexuality was always up for grabs. It was not a question of whether he was gay (“John, I’m Only Dancing”) or straight (“Be My Wife”), many of his public relationships have, after all, been with women; but Bowie always laid claim to a kind of excess, a set of identities that exceeded norms and expectations and that were some combination of male femininity (Ziggy), masculine exotic (Aladdin Sane), Martian sexiness, ethereal beauty, originality and innovation. The word most often used about Bowie, and one I have made recourse to here, is “otherworldly.” His reputation as profoundly alien was enhanced by movies like Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 space oddity: The Man Who Fell to Earth. This movie, like no other (apart from maybe his “walk off” cameo in Zoolander!) confirmed Bowie’s status as unearthly. He needed no make up to be convincing as a man from another world – in the film he is called a “visitor,” a “freak,” an “alien” and he manages to convey a sense of bodily oddness that is unique in film.
Is there life on Mars? If you believe in David Bowie, the answer is yes. While earth for Bowie is a place where time is on perpetual repeat (“Always Crashing in the Same Car”), in the exotic and exciting moonage daydreams that Bowie conjures, apocalypse appears alongside utopia, futures are exciting and curtailed (“we can be heroes…just for one day”), and the body is a place to play out colorful fantasies of love and rebellion. As we say goodbye to a truly queer icon, a performer who invited us to “press your space face close to mine, love,” we also bid farewell to someone who has reinvented fame, spectacle, eccentricity and stardom.
But, Bowie left us a final album to decode, Blackstar, where he intones:
“I can’t answer why (I’m not a gangster)
But I can tell you how (I’m not a flam star)
We were born upside-down (I’m a star star)
Born the wrong way ‘round (I’m not a white star)
(I’m a blackstar, I’m not a gangster
I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar
I’m not a pornstar, I’m not a wandering star
I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar.”
Not a white star, not a gangster, not a wandering star, a black star – Bowie’s final message, part physics/part undercommons, draws upon the metaphors of space that saturate his entire output. A black star in physics represents, Wikipedia tells us “a transitional phase between a collapsing star and a singularity,” it is a zone where event and infinity collide, where matter disintegrates into a vacuum. It is a space of death and dying. But black star could also be a way of rethinking racialized embodiment itself such that the thin white duke recognizes himself in the black aesthetics that swirl through his music, the soul inflections that he channels and inhabits and the machinery of fame that works through a process of Black music/white stars, transferring fame to white bodies from music created through and around the experience of blackness. What others appropriate, Bowie inhabits. What others steal, Bowie acknowledges. What others hold at a distance, Bowie embraces.
“I’m a blackstar,” Bowie sings, “I’m a blackstar.” So, while we attribute some of Bowie’s incandescent oddness to gender and sexual ambiguity, race is also a huge part of what rendered Bowie a star – not a white star, not a pornstar, not a wandering star, but a black star. As Bowie now passes into immortality, as he assumes legendary proportions, as he comes to represent the expansiveness of wild reinvention, musical experimentation, bodily flexibility, political imagination and queer uncertainty, we should look up to the sky and sparkle in the hopes of receiving a message from pop culture’s most beloved astronaut, a starman waiting in the sky.
4 replies on “IS THERE LIFE ON MARS? GOODBYE TO BOWIE BY JACK HALBERSTAM”
Truly loved this piece. One more black star for the litany. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h0Jkv1cs6PE
This is pure magic. Beautiful.
I only discovered the music of David Bowie when I was 18 back in 1999. I bought Hunky Dory, played it and fell in love with every track. Ever since, Bowie has been a constant soundtrack to a life that has taken me all around the world. I listen to him every month. I started this year by watching Labyrinth and listening to his 2013 album The Next Day. I have been knocked off my axis since I heard news of his death. It has had a profound affect on me and I have been consoling myself by listening to three albums of his a night after work. I can’t imagine what it would be like to face this news as someone who has been influenced by Bowie for decades. Your article is excellent – it made me want to be transported to the dreary 70s neighbourhood you speak of, to imagine what it would be like to hear Bowie for the first time when living in such a place. Pop music hasn’t found a soundtrack that conjures up images of space travel as much as Bowie’s does. If someone goes to a space station, they end up playing Ziggy Stardust era Bowie. The Martian last year used Starman to capture the mood of space. David Bowie is still the soundtrack to the future. If there is any consolation to this terrible news, it is that his death will mean a rebirth as all his music will be discovered by a new generation who are now immensely curious about this person they’ve heard about in the news. In a way, its a bit like a star collapsing into a supernova to form other stars in the future. Yet another way in which Bowie is the Starman Thanks for writing this – I enjoyed it immensely.
Walk good, slim white duke.