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The Wisdom of David Bowie

I was totally stunned when I heard the news of David Bowie's death on Monday. I couldn't believe it. Bowie was one of those unique cultural icons you couldn't imagine life without. As a product of the 1980's, Bowie's music and remarkably complex characters permeated everything. I can't imagine my childhood without being equally mesmerized and terrified of the Goblin King, or singing along to Rebel Rebel's addictive hook.

It wasn't until my teen years that I really appreciated Bowie's brilliance. I was always the odd one out growing up in a small town. All the other kids loved (and were good at) sports, were thin, and had cable TV. They all had their cliques, and I was never accepted nor felt like I belonged. I was a chubby, pale, awkward kid with no coordination. All I wanted to do was draw, or curl up in the corner of the school yard with a library book. I wasn't much different when I reached high school, except maybe a bit taller.

A continuing theme in Bowie's music was the struggle of the alienated, the lonely...the freaks. He not only sung about it, incorporating complex narratives and characters into his lyrics, but he also embodied the strange and unusual. He was a master at the theatrical, the playful, and somehow I found him remarkably relatable. He embraced the different, using it completely to his advantage. His impossibly pale complexion, mismatched eyes, and bright orange hair during the 1970's set him apart from everyone else at the time. Can you think of anyone in contemporary music that hasn't borrowed from Bowie? He hated being analyzed, and never took himself or his profession too seriously.

David Bowie was well beyond his time. In an interview from 1999 with the BBC's Jeremy Paxman (Boooo!), he starts talking about how the internet has changed the music scene. To give you an idea of the time, Napster was installed on many home computers (mine included), which only had a slow, dial-up connection. I remember downloading music late at night, so my parent's wouldn't complain about tying up their phone line. *sigh* It seems so quaint looking back...

He starts saying that because of the internet there is a "demystification process between the artist and the audience" happening in music. There is no "brand name" artist like in the earlier decades (e.g. Elvis in the 50's, The Beatles in the 60's). It is becoming more about the audience and a breakdown in the division between the audience and the artist, exemplified by the rave culture of the late 1990's. He goes on to explain that in the 1970's there was a breakdown in the "singularity" of culture and society. Before that time, there were universally understood and respected divisions of right and wrong. During the 70's that starts being questioned and broken down, and the internet is just an extension of the duality and complexity of reality. He says that we "have not seen the tip of the iceberg with what the internet is going to do with society, both good and bad, is unimaginable...we are on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying". Paxman doesn't get it (naturally), disregarding the internet as "just a tool".

Bowie knew better, laughing and arguing that "No, it's an alien life form". (God, I miss him.) He envisions a time in the future where "the actual context and the state of content is going to be so different to anything we can really envisage at the moment. Where the interplay between the user and provider will be so in simpatico, it's going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about".

Wow. Think about about that. In 1999, when most people had a PC running Windows 98 and a crappy dial-up connection, Bowie was already seeing the transformation that the internet will have on our society - in every aspect. (The whole interview is wonderful, and I highly recommend watching it in full.)

Imagine what he could have told us or created if he lived beyond 69 years.

For the last few days I've had Life on Mars playing on repeat. It was written during his Ziggy Stardust days, in retaliation for his version of a French song Comme d'habitude, never being released. It included the lyric "Even a fool learns to love", which Paul Anka changed to "My Way". The revised song, of course, was given to Frank Sinatra and became an instant classic. Bowie wrote Life on Mars out of anger for never getting any credit. I'm still not really sure what the song is really about. I just know that I love it, and it seems fitting with the dull melancholy of knowing yet another great musician, visionary artist, and all-around remarkable man is gone.

Rest in peace, Starman. You are truly loved, and deeply missed.

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