When I wrote the review of Blackstar last week and asked whether this was David Bowie’s ode to himself, an ode to his inevitable death, I did not expect such a literal response. Bowie passed away early on the morning of Jan. 10, merely two days after the release of his Blackstar album. I was devastated and couldn’t help but think that we’ve lost one of the greatest musicians of our time.
David Bowie was a musician, an artist, a film star, a performer, and a mime. He was an iconoclast and lastly, a self-proclaimed blackstar. The lyrics to the title song of his final album give his audience a final answer to his self-proclaimed public identity.
“I can’t answer why (I’m a blackstar)
Just go with me (I’m not a filmstar)
I’m-a take you home (I’m a blackstar)
Take your passport and shoes (I’m not a popstar)
And your sedatives, boo (I’m a blackstar)
You’re a flash in the pan (I’m not a marvel star)
I’m the Great I Am (I’m a blackstar)”
The beloved spaceman left fans an epic goodbye in Blackstar, as we all should have expected. In a way, a concept album to help fans understand his death is so very “Bowie”, defining his entire ideology as a performer and as an iconic influence of pop culture.
In 1995, Bowie’s notes on his album Outside said, “We don’t expect our audience to necessarily seek an explanation from ourselves. We assign that role to the listener and to culture. As both of these are in a state of permanent change there will be a constant “drift” in interpretation. All art is unstable. Its meaning is not necessarily that implied by the author. There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings”.
Bowie defined a cultural movement that allowed the fusion of art, performance, and music into a pop culture. Instead of creating a single public identity, he let the audience ascertain the meaning of his various works. His 27 studio album career began in 1967 with David Bowie and ended with Blackstar in 2016. Bowie was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
Arguably though, Bowie’s character was not completely absent from his role asThomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth or Ziggy Stardust, his spacey alter-ego. Instead, Bowie’s success is that he managed to maintain a sense of absolute humanity and personality in his work while cultivating an air of mystery as to which direction he would take next as a performance artist and musician.
But, what makes a timeless icon? Perhaps it was Bowie’s ability to keep fans guessing while using his power as a pop culture icon to spread messages of love and acceptance. V&A researcher Dr. Kathryn Johnson, author of “David Bowie Is”, says, “this creative tension between power and empowerment is central to Bowie’s lasting cultural impact and enduring popularity”.
Bowie was a master of allusion. He created subtle references to reflect important issues — such as the blurring boundaries of gender and authenticity in creativity — thus enhancing his power as a relevant artist and musician. Bowie’s various works over the past four decades also highlighted and challenged “normal” ideologies. In the essay “Out of this World: Ziggy Stardust and the Spatial Interplay of Lyrics, Vocals and Performance” by Barish Ali and Heidi Wallace, they make references to the power of allusion. “Allusions…lead the curious almost anywhere and thus expose the curious to culture that they might not otherwise have stumbled upon. These paths can amount to novel cultural genealogies, revealing connections where none were previously perceived.”
For example, when Bowie played Ziggy Stardust, his alter-ego space alien messenger, he began to explore the idea of the “other” — either as a space alien or a person who dressed and acted uniquely. His androgynous costume style choices and performance techniques gave way for marginalized groups such as transgendered individuals to find empowerment in Bowie as a fearless cultural icon.
Bowie did not want his fans to get comfortable though. He abandoned his role as Ziggy Stardust suddenly and without notice on July 3, 1973. In 1980, Bowie came out with Scary Monsters, which moved from the physical exploration of space aliens to the exploration of the trans-human experience. He dressed in stylized androgynous outfits and helped to create an important discussion surrounding the feminine and masculine. In 1983, Bowie shocked fans again with his release of Let’s Dance, where he embraced a more masculinized role, solidifying the idea that Bowie desired to exist as an impermanent cultural phenomenon rather than one defining impression.
Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, follows similar themes. It brings in the chaotic jazz influences last seen in his Scary Monsters album and pushes boundaries through the performative exploration of death. The final song of the album, “I Can’t Give Everything Away” defines the idea that Bowie was dedicated to giving his fans everything he could, but in the end the meaning was the audience’s to discover.
“When we hear Bowie’s voice, we do not hear the authoritative “Bowie” message or project. We hear the dramatisation of performative identity and culture in the making; we hear the fluctuation. And ultimately, we hear ourselves—our own responses to the indefinable,” says Ali and Wallace.
Blackstar is ultimately about death; yet, potentially, it is about the eternal life of Bowie’s work as well. He left his fans with a final goodbye, and one that can be cherished for years to come. As Bowie prophetically stated in his role as Thomas Jerome Newton , “Well I know I’m not a scientist. But I know all things begin and end in eternity”.
See you in eternity Starman.