When I was thirteen, I made a MySpace account. It was a clandestine affair, a hush-hush site kept secret from my folks that made me feel grown-up, hip, cool. In actuality, I spent the entirety of my time on this social media platform avoiding the “social” aspect all together; I was more into altering the design of my page, which became near habitual. I changed my profile song like the weather, flitting from Sonic Youth to Britney Spears depending on whether or not I ate lunch alone that day, a barometer of loneliness or disconnection or youthful exuberance, all the swinging emotions that accompany being a newly minted teenager with a cowlick and a Beanie Baby collection. My mood statuses were always vague, hinting at angst, self-indulgent little nothings, passive aggressive and purposeless.
The one thing that rarely changed was my bio. At any given moment, a friend could scroll through my page and read the phrase, “When words fail, music speaks.” And though I certainly have outgrown tYp3in liek dis for some sort of quasi-cute effect or idolizing Hello Kitty and Jeffree Star as if they were deities, those five words still ring true, echoing in the hollows of my heart. For me, there has always been a visceral connection to music, as if my veins had been rewired and hooked to an internal stereo, my brain driven by beats and echoes, lyrics sprawled on skin with Sharpie seeping through my pores and into my blood.
Music has always been a source of solace, of comfort. Something to believe in and something that I felt believed in me right back.
When I woke up to a news alert and a series of frantic, frankly surprised, text messages on the morning of January 10th, 2016, I felt like a rug had been ripped out from underneath me. It was odd and unexpected; when you grow up loving music so much, holding it so dear, you often don’t think of the musicians you adore and depend on as mortal beings with the same flesh-and-blood-and-bone weaknesses as you. David Bowie was never human for me, so when he passed away, it was difficult to comprehend.
My music taste was rather atypical as a child. Though I certainly owned Christina Aguilera and Pink records (and, in an attempt to desperately fit in with a close friend, Kelly Clarkson’s Breakaway, which I studied like a manual to blend in, Behind These Hazel Eyes becoming a mantra, chanted under my breath until lyrics were memorized) like other girls in my grade, I also listened to a fair share of Depeche Mode, Garbage, The Police, a hodgepodge of alt-rock and new wave. My e-mail address was 80sFreak28. I was consuming eras that I was not even alive for, seeking a place to belong amongst legwarmers and the Pet Shop Boys. Or maybe I was alienating myself further purposely, giving myself a false persona of confidently odd, okay with being the weird girl who quoted films no one else had ever seen, humming lyrics peers had the audacity not to recognize. It wasn’t a hipster sense of “I know something you don’t know.” It was was a desire to be noticed and to be disregarded, simultaneously.
It was also a reflection of my relationship with my mother, a woman who, to this day, has damn near impeccable taste in music; for reference, her wedding song of choice was Absolute Beginners. It doesn’t get much cooler than that. She’d spin Bowie until I was belting Suffragette City, holding back giggles as I wasn’t quite sure what he was whamming, blamming, or thank-you-ma’amming. Though I lacked in knowledge about prostitution, I was keenly aware that this voice, these beats, this sound was something subversive. Something odd yet understated, totally out-there but made to sound as natural as a heartbeat.
This was alien.
As I got older, my music library constantly ebbed and flowed. Cobra Starship replaced Pink, the Dead Kennedys replaced Cobra, Bikini Kill saddled up alongside My Chemical Romance who cozied up next to The Smiths. But a permanent figure was David Bowie; if my fluorescent green iPod Nano could only hold one album, my only difficulty would be choosing between Hunky Dory, Aladdin Sane, and the Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust. But that was just it. To call David Bowie a “permanent figure” is like likening water to cement. He embodied impermanence, a shapeshifter who slithered through my eardrums like smoke under the door of an ablaze apartment. There was something so manicly important about it, a quality like consumption, something that engulfed me, swallowed me, and spit me out, polished and reborn. That was David Bowie. It was music and art and innovation and it was paradoxically so foreign and alien-esque and so desperately human at the same time. At one moment, he was the Starman, the next he was wondering if there was Life on Mars? (Oh, and for a short period of time, he was literally a Goblin King who stole babies and then sang about said baby-theft.) He brought a sense of self-awareness to music; but the catch was finding out what that “self” was. Or perhaps the fun of it was all about the reinvention, about choosing whoever you wanted to be and embodying that choice with face paint and out-of-place synths and tight lamé pants (though if we’re discussing imagination, those pants left very, very little to it.)
David Bowie shattered conventions but he also invented worlds; he infiltrated pop with familiar sounds and then added something off-kilter, tilting the world for a moment, throwing you off balance. There was a safety in his brand of uncertainty, like no matter where he left you, no matter what galaxy he dropped you off in, that you’d be okay, that you’d find your way back home, or, perhaps, make a home amongst the stars. He was transparent and fragile and larger-than-life and unbreakable, a walking contradiction whose music was felt more than heard, an ache in your bones, your heart a soaring, unstoppable drumbeat. He was witty and weird and wandering, and he was living proof that eccentricity is not a death sentence, something I desperately needed to hear in my adolescence, and something I still often need reminding of in my adulthood.
The thing about artists is that they are transient; like all of us, they flutter to earth like a snowstorm, flakes falling indeterminately, melting on your tongue and getting stuck in your eyelashes before melting away entirely. Yet their work, their creations are far from fleeting; if artist a snowflake, art is a meteor, plummeting with supersonic force down into the ground, leaving a trail of fire and ash behind, carving an indelible hollow into the crust of the planet. Music is the farthest thing from mortal; this is the very reason I was listening to the very same Let’s Dance record that my mother had spun in her own room as a young woman. It is an heirloom, a treasure we unearth, something we can hold tight to or share freely, replay, rewind, slow down, and speed up. When artists we love pass away, it is important to always remember that their creations, that which made us feel so beloved and understood and belonging, that which made us feel laugh, grin, dance, love, weep, scream, and contemplate, will never fade.
It is impossible to live forever; it is far from impossible, as Mr. Bowie showed us all, to create something that will.
Thank you for creating that something, thank you for being that someone, thank you for everything. It’s often a cliché to say “you will never be forgotten,” at a time like this, but here, it’s not a platitude, it’s a guarantee. For now, it’s time I take my own adolescent advice.
When words fail, music speaks. And I don’t think anyone could say it much better than this.
Didn’t know what time it was and the lights were low
I leaned back on my radio
Some cat was layin’ down some rock ‘n’ roll ‘lotta soul, he said
Then the loud sound did seem to fade
Came back like a slow voice on a wave of phase
That weren’t no D.J. that was hazy cosmic jive
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 starman waiting in the sky
He’s told us not to blow it
‘Cause he knows it’s all worthwhile
He told me
“Let the children lose it.”