I feel an extraordinary intimacy with Bowie, although I know this is a total fantasy. I also know that this is a shared fantasy, common to a huge number of loyal fans for whom Bowie is not some rock star or a series of flat media clichés about bisexuality and bars in Berlin. He is someone who has made life a little less ordinary for an awfully long time.
— Simon Critchley, Bowie
Reading Bowie, Simon Critchley’s extended pontification on the eponymous star, I thought about fandom. Merriam-Webster dates the term back to 1903, 70 years before Critchley’s mother brought home a copy of Aladdin Sane because she admired Bowie’s bright orange ‘do; 100 years before I jotted the lyrics to Future Legend in silver gel-pen on my binder during Social Studies.
Critchley witnessed in real time the rise and the fall of Ziggy Stardust, along with all the other lost and confused children of the ‘60s mucking around the “suburban shitholes of Bromley, Beckenham, Billericay, Basingstoke, Braintree, or Biggleswade.” Tack on to that list Blue Valley, Kansas, thirty years post-Ziggy, when I was 12 and wore out a VHS of Labyrinth before my mom bought me the Best of Bowie compilation CD. All that uncertainty and identitylessness and histrionic melodrama and mad-dancing-around-the-bedroom-behind-a-locked-door of my execrable teendom was now funneled into this bewildering obsession. My weirdness (read: friendlessness) had a name, a face. And lyrics: “Let’s turn on and be not alone! / Gimme your hands! ‘Cos you’re wonderful!” And a fantastic wardrobe. Amid Midwestern megachurches and half-built subdivisions, my obsession was gritted into a secret pearl.
On the bus to school I blasted “Teenage Wildlife” on tinny headphones jacked into a Sony Discman. It always skipped around — “so you train by sha— —xing / search for the truth” — because I’d loaned Scary Monster (and Super Creeps) from the big faraway library, unable to afford the remastered CD from Borders.
Joining a group of girlfriends by the 8th grade lockers, one huffy over the tumultuous end to her week-long relationship, I quoted “Time” from Aladdin Sane: “Breaking up is hard, / but keeping dark is hateful.” The girls looked on, reverent, when really I had the right to be kicked in the tuchus by truly all of Johnson County. Bowie was a shield of superiority when I felt like I had said something dumb, done my hair dumb, or walked in some dumb way. I was sage because of this bizarre Bowie-colored pearl. I looked around at my classmates: “He doesn’t get this. She doesn’t experience this. No one knows what I know.” This creature. This oracle.
Critchley’s main focus in Bowie is on the man’s utterly constructed, completely self-conscious inauthenticity. In the 70s, Bowie churned out thirteen wildly distinct records. He leapt from longhaired hippie logician to alien life form to apocalyptic 1984-inspired composer to blue-eyed soul man to coke-addled Nazi zealot to Berlin recluse, shedding skins and donning masks in a glitzy, gritty whirlwind. Critchley’s use of “inauthenticity” is not a dig; he writes, “Bowie’s genius allows us to break the superficial link that seems to connect authenticity to truth.” Authenticity, he explains, “is the curse of music from which we need to cure ourselves. [Bowie’s] fakery is not false, but at the service of felt, corporeal truth.” A truth, clearly, which hit right to the core to fans world over, and which Philip Auslander explains as a reaction to the “systematic and self-conscious metamorphoses of the personal” that Bowie rapidly adapted to “fit the ever-changing definitions of rock authenticity.”
At a time when I felt like a cipher, a fake myself, I could reinvent myself as swiftly as Bowie (perhaps leaving out the Hitler fascination) because my identity was, figuratively, fontanelle, awaiting formation.
I had a maximum of three pals on the best of days, and we concerned ourselves not with gender-bending glam rock but with beige Chinese food from Hy-Vee and romance novels such as A Pirate’s Pleasure, making gigglish notes in the margins next to “his turgid staff,” “her fiery triangle,” etc., like the Sisterhood of the Traveling Smut. Occasionally I could convince my friend Ellen to put on the A Knight’s Tale soundtrack, which featured “Golden Years”, during our destinationless rides in her Chevy Suburban.
More often than not, though, I holed up in my room and spent hours drawing the subtle swell at the bridge of Bowie’s nose and his spindly fingers, squinting at a reference photo ombréd with fading printer ink, then delving into my first (and happily only) attempts at abstract artistry as I splotched my hands with kohl scribbling “Zane ouvre le chien” from “All the Madmen” into a scratchy charcoal void (it was a COMMENT on SOCIETY).
I had so much left to learn about my own lameness, but more importantly, so much more left to learn about art and philosophy and the parties that Shakey threw all night, tigers on Vaseline, the stations of the cross and Aleister Crowley and les tricoteuses of which Bowie sang. His influences became mine, and spidered off into love for Bolan, Butoh, Brecht, Bri/yans Eno and Ferry, androgyny, duffle coats with toggles, carroty-colored haircuts.
Thankfully, the Internet was happening, and had been for some time. There were endless rare photos, videos of concert footage, and very shortly I started lurking the Bowie forums at TeenageWildlife.com, then gingerly posting under the stylish and provocative handle “jareth13.” TW, as it was affectionately called, hosted fan fiction and analysis, daily lyrics and obscure B-sides, tangential threads fawning over Placebo and Robyn Hitchcock, and perpetual shade thrown upon TW’s arch nemesis, BowieWonderWorld.com.
Revisiting the Teenage Wildlife forum for the first time in more than a decade, it is virtually unchanged. Head moderator Adam’s still there, along with a handful of other usernames I recognize, conversing in a thread about self-reflexivity in Bowie’s songs. Another jokingly claims to be selling the Chupa Chups lollipop chucked in Bowie’s eye during a concert in 2004. Excited rumors are brewing about Bowie potentially appearing in the upcoming season of Hannibal. The ancient interface, Arial type, and familiarly flat color scheme feel like going home; after all, this is where I once started a thread asking “Do the lyrics go like, ‘Making sure, white stains,’ with sure as an adjective, or is it like, ‘Making sure white stains,’ like he’s confirming for sure that the white will stain?” 0 replies. 🙁
The manipulation and premeditation that Critchley pinpoints to define the definitionless Bowie are what drew me to him the most. In footage from the famous D.A. Pennebaker documentary chronicling Ziggy Stardust’s final concert, you can see cold calculation beyond the deep-set shadows and glittery makeup of Bowie’s eyes as he prances in a skimpy kimono and ejects arm, twists head, then genuflects to the stars. In the slipshod video for “Heroes,” Bowie still seems self-conscious even ten years into his career, hesitant about when to begin the verse and unsure of what to do with his hands as a powerful light emanates from his swimsuit area.
I studied every motion.
Even into college, I preferred to be quiet and chameleonic, “I can’t get a read on her” registering as a compliment of the highest caliber. I wanted to be unknown, but questioned — assumed agonizingly mysterious for my muteness, rather than dumb. Such was the height of my vanity. My Bowie fandom made me voyeur to a life grittier than mine, dirtier and harder and sweatier. Critchley says, “There is a world of people for whom Bowie was the being who permitted a powerful emotional connection and fed them to become some other kind of self, something freer, more queer, more honest, more open, and more exciting.” My college boyfriend said I walked like I thought I was a glam rock wolf in an Old Navy fleece. In an effort to show him who I was, or at least who I thought I was, I made him listen to the whole of Station to Station by way of explanation, lying in utter silence on the twin bed in my freshman dorm room, childhood Beatrix Potter quilt underneath. (When the same boy discovered cocaine, he tried to convince me of all the good it had done for Bowie in the late ‘70s, when the man subsisted entirely on a diet of milk, coke, and peppers, confident that witches were trying to steal his semen. Surely I would understand!)
I finally read “Notes on ‘Camp’” in an avant garde theatre class my junior year, and at last began to understand why I’d been drawn to Bowie and his ilk like a moth to a strobe. Sontag states: “The essence of camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration. And camp is esoteric, something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban [in my case, Internet] cliques.” When it came to Ziggy Stardust, Bowie prefabricated a fictional esoteric cult with a built-in fan base that eventually led to real fans, countless devotees all strung out on the streets beside the Hammersmith Odeon in mullets and fuck-me pumps, the telltale “badges of identity” for their “small urban cliques.” Suzanne Rintoul remarks as much in her essay on Bowie’s conscious construction of his own star power, “Loving the Alien.” He is undoubtedly aware of this manipulation of his own making: take the song “Star” (“So enticing to play the part / I could play the wild mutation as a rock ‘n’ roll star”) as a forerunner to “Starman” (“There’s a starman waiting in the sky / He’d like to come and meet us, but he thinks he’d blow our minds”). There’s a plan in action there, and it quickly gets blown out of all earthly proportion.
Auslander complements Rintoul’s observations, explaining, “Bowie’s strategy of mutating identities anticipated the devaluation of rock authenticity seen by some commentators as a hallmark of popular music culture in the 1980s — the age of the music video.” Flipping POVs, changing timbres, restyling his hair, he played a vast repertoire of characters without relating to even one of them. In 1980, “Ashes to Ashes” reflected 1969’s “Space Oddity,” and 2013’s “Love is Lost” music video has Bowie scrutinizing literal puppets of his past selves. The collection of characters loops in on itself in a daze.
Though Rintoul considers Bowie’s self-reflexivity a “problematic duplicity,” I’ve always related to it as a struggle for identity. Identity, I thought, equaled Significance, and what on earth could be more important than Significance? So, this “identity” thing . . . how to achieve? Make a slapdash patchwork of various pop culture influences, all leading back to the same peacocking pretender? “David, what shall I do? They wait for me in the hallway.”
And he’ll say, “Don’t ask me, I don’t know any hallways.”
So where exactly does that leave me?
Critchley lived through Bowie’s creative height in the 70s and his lamestream low in the later 80s, when the rest of popular music finally caught up with him and he, horror of horrors, became direly uncool. I have the fortune of regarding, say, the nearly-unlistenable Never Let Me Down with ironic detachment, the ole Time + Tragedy = Comedy trick. As Critchley entered university, however, he was forced to repress his love for Bowie, or at least who Bowie once was, as the 80s transformed the highbrow, ascetic aesthete into a tanned, chummy lounge lizard with a peroxide poodle perm. And of course he was never as tabloid-worthy here as he was in the UK, where Critchley and other Brits were hounded by the media’s warped obsession with Bowie as rags like The Mirror and NME weekly touted him as a Heil-saluting, mum-neglecting sex terrorist or whatever.
No, in my sphere he merely drifted away into cozy domesticity, shacking up with wife Iman in Soho, existing quietly as plain ol’ earthbound David Robert Jones. The Reality tour and a cameo in The Prestige were rare treats, the anticipation and enjoyment of which I savored as delicately as Charlie Bucket’s birthday Wonka bar. When Bowie got hit smack-dab in the eye with the lollipop, and later underwent angioplasty, I flopped dramatically on that Beatrix Potter quilt and sobbed my butt off.
This was around 2004, before a yawning near-decade of radio silence. As I grew older, and Bowie’s life in the public eye became a fond memory, I learned how to function in the world without feeling like I was being marionetted by a thousand moving influences, maybe even slowly sewing up my soft spots, without the temporary patch of individuality-by-proxy, without clinging to him and him alone for significance. Eventually this Bowie thingy, this pearl, faded away in shades — though I carried it with me always, he defined me less.
Then, 2013, BANG! and holiest shit, the sneaky debut of The Next Day, complete with videos. Bonus tracks. Listicles. Quizzes: which Bowie are YOU? Instead of lovingly drinking in individual tracks and savoring lyrics behind my bedroom door, I listened to the album on Spotify while at work, in between booming ads for “VANS WARPED TOUR 2014!!!” Out of the woodwork crawled legions of fans via social media, admired blogs, and journals, reviewing the new album, reflecting on the old, reporting their own journey with Bowie, oftentimes not unlike my own. It felt like my best friend was sharing inside jokes with complete strangers. My secret room, treasured in solitude all these years, was teeming with tourists.
Turns out, he’d never been mine to begin with.
For teenagers the world over who felt somehow unfinished, discovering Bowie was the key. For this supposed adult who feels somehow still unfinished, there’s work to be done on my own. “Just as Bowie seemingly reinvented himself without limits,” Critchley says, “he allowed us to believe that our own capacity for changes was limitless.” Each one of us smiling and scowling and smirking dodecahedrons, from Mars or Potsdamer Platz. This soft spot is still here, and I myself am not much for sewing.
“So . . . what shall I do?”
“Don’t ask me.”
I could use a little mending, could stand to “turn and face the strange.” And we can change. Will always change.