On Monday morning the news of David Bowie’s death took us by surprise. Two days after his 69th birthday and the triumphant release of his latest, and last, album – Blackstar – the man who inspired a generation to new heights of curiosity, creativity, and self-expression was gone.
Though I loved all of Bowie’s music, including all the classic songs that were released before I was quite old enough to appreciate them, the first Bowie record I owned (and played to death) was Tonight. I think I may still have a battered cassette copy of that album somewhere. Two years later, in 1986, I – like millions of other teenage girls – fell in love with Bowie as the evil but oh-so-alluring Jareth the Goblin King in Jim Henson’s movie, Labyrinth.
I have spent more time than I’d like to admit over these past couple of days reminiscing about Bowie – reading tributes and articles, watching video interviews, and – of course – listening to his music. It’s funny, a couple months ago on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I bought two Bowie albums from iTunes. I rarely buy digital music, but I couldn’t get the song Tumble and Twirl out of my head, so I downloaded my beloved Tonight album and then picked up the Best of Bowie because – man! – I loved every song on the playlist.
I wish I felt up to offering a fitting tribute to Bowie, but I’m not yet able to articulate my feelings fully. So, instead, I humbly offer this list of ten things David Bowie taught us about creating art. I still have much to learn about the man, his life, and his art; but these ideals are ones he embodied boldly, through his creations, actions, and words.
#10 – Be original, but also don’t be afraid to steal. Bowie is renowned for being a one-of-a-kind geek/freak who never shied away from embracing the weird, eclectic, or fringe elements of his identity or his audience. He is credited with inspiring many, many other artists from the 80s, 90s, and today. On the other hand, he readily cites the heavy influence of other artists on his own work – Little Richard, for instance, John Coltrane, Shirley Bassey, and John Lennon. Bowie had a way of processing all these influences, making them part of his own art. As they say, nothing is original. You can only take what’s been done and do it your own way.
#9 – Look at things from different perspectives. Bowie was able to create such fresh and unique music because he had such a huge talent for looking at the world and his art from different perspectives. In a 1999 commencement speech at the Berklee College of Music, Bowie talked about how he liked to play the game of “What if?” – what if you combined this thing with that thing? By mixing wildly different elements in unlikely combinations, he was able to create something new. In another interview, he walks through the “cut up” method he sometimes used to write his lyrics. (Don’t pay attention to the lines of coke on the table.)
Bowie also famously created characters that he inhabited on stage and sometimes off – Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke, Major Tom. He looked at the world through the eyes of these characters, and he told their stories – and ours – with their voices.
Finally, David was an avid reader. In 1998, Vanity Fair magazine published Bowie’s responses to the famous Proust Questionnaire. His answer to the first question – “What is your idea of perfect happiness?” – was “Reading.” Bowie was curious about life, you might even say he was voracious. Of the Bowie quotes making the rounds on the Internet, one of my favorites is, “Don’t you love the Oxford Dictionary? When I first read it, I thought it was a really really long poem about everything.”
#8 – Don’t be afraid to confront what scares you. Much of Bowie’s work has a decidedly dark bent. His lyrics dive deeply into themes of loneliness, exclusion, fear, death, loss, and grief. He was never afraid to write the hard stuff, and his courage made us brave. He faced many demons and he did so with an air of rebellion. Robin Williams made us laugh about the scary stuff, Fred Rogers comforted us, David Bowie invited us to explore it – to get inside and see what made it work, to take it apart so it couldn’t scare us anymore.
#7 – Create what YOU want to create. Bowie was never subtle about the strength of his artistic integrity. He is quoted as saying, “I’m just an individual who doesn’t feel that I need to have somebody qualify my work in any particular way. I’m working for me.” Bowie didn’t write to please anyone but himself. I imagine he didn’t think of his work as a product, but as an exploration or an experiment. He may have enthralled millions of fans over the years, but he truly only played for one person – himself.
#6 – Keep a sense of wonder. Like most great artists, Bowie doesn’t seem to have ever felt he was “done” or knew everything. He was a constant seeker and student, and he knew the value of keeping an open mind and being willing to be surprised. “Once you lose that sense of wonder at being alive,” he said, “you’re pretty much on the way out…”
#5 – Collaborate. Many of Bowie’s greatest hits were collaborations with other artists. The list of musicians Bowie worked with is long and illustrious: Lou Reed, Tina Turner, Freddie Mercury, John Lennon, Iggy Pop, even Bing Crosby, and so many more. Bowie knew the power of collaboration to inspire great ideas and stellar performances.
#4 – Don’t get caught up in the pursuit of recognition. In addition to creating only what he wanted to create, Bowie also seems to have had very specific opinions about accepting accolades for his work. He is one of only a handful of people who declined knighthood, reportedly saying, “I would never have any intention of accepting anything like that. It’s not what I spent my life working for.”
#3 – Be a force for bringing beauty into the world. Though the sometimes outrageous personas and fashions he adopted over the span of his career aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, there’s no denying that Bowie brought color and style to the world. He embraced the importance of beauty – in all its forms – fully and passionately. He never held back. In fact, he pushed at the edges of traditional definitions and helped us see beauty everywhere.
#2 – Don’t take yourself too seriously. “I’m always amazed that people take what I say seriously. I don’t even take what I am seriously.” – David Bowie
I love that quote.
On Monday, I posted the following Facebook status update, “For all his mystique and musical genius, what I always liked best about David Bowie was his sense of humor and his full-bodied, roguish smile. Gods, that smile. It was like he knew a delightfully wicked and beautiful secret – a cosmic joke that we’d all get to hear someday; and he couldn’t wait to share the punch line. There is a little less magic in the world today, but thank the gods we had him while we did. He made us feel less alone. He made us dance. He made us laugh and think and dream. The stars look very different today. May they guide you home, wherever that may be.”
The post included a link to the first in a series of three video clip compilations of Bowie being funny.
#1 – Never stop creating. The media reports that Bowie died after an eighteen-month battle with cancer, but – clearly – his personal health crisis did not keep him from creating his art. If anything, it seems to have fueled his drive to finish Blackstar, an album that his friends and family agree was a parting gift from the artist to his fans. I came across a Jack London quote earlier today that seemed fitting, “I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.” That seems to be exactly what Bowie was doing – using his time. And, oh, how grateful I am that he did. How grateful I am that he lived.
We have lost a great artist and an inspiration. If – like me – you’re feeling down about it, maybe this tweet of questionable but irrelevant lineage from @jesuisdean will make you smile: If you’re sad today, just remember the world is over 4 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Join me each Saturday for the Weekend Edition (a fun post and great community of commenters on the writing life, random musings, writing tips, and good reads), or introduce yourself on Facebook, twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.