I have this thing about refusing to care when famous people die. I’ll read the news, scratch the side of my face, then fret over the number of crisps left in the Pringles can that my hand is stuck in and forget about the dead famous person du jour.
It probably stems from my overall disdain for celebrity culture, our fascination with the every move of these glamorous strangers, many of them famous simply for being famous. Their importance is relatively arbitrary: The most famous or the most celebrated rarely if ever are the most talented in our society, or the smartest, the most caring, the bravest.
But sometimes they are, or they sure come close. There are those artists who not only sing or act or write, but those who stand for something bigger than their fame, whose words and actions become a sum-of-the-parts triumph of inspiration, whose brilliance and courage jostles us and moves us forward, forcing us to wake up, to look at ourselves good and hard in the mirror.
I’ve often wondered what it is exactly we’re mourning when celebrities die. Whatever they’ve given us is not lost forever. It’s in the same place it’s always been: In print, on DVD, streaming, digitized. We can return to them whenever we please in the same ways we did when they were living. Perhaps we’re sad because they will no longer be doing the thing that made them celebrities to begin with, the world now deprived of future goodness.
No, I really can’t be sad when a 69-year-old David Bowie dies of cancer after a transformative and impactful career. Yes, it was surprising, and sure, Bowie was making music almost literally till the day he died, perhaps another album or two in his head. But he was going to go at some point, and one more album and one more song wasn’t going to affect or change or realistically build on what he’d already given us: Given Bowie’s influence, it’s almost impossible.
However, there seems to be something different about Bowie. I’ve always been a marginal Bowie fan, enjoying everything of his I ever encountered, he was just one of those I respected and admired more than I consumed. People I know personally, whose aesthetics I gravitate to (two of which can be found on pages 6 and 7 of this issue), were deeply affected by Bowie’s death. So much so that it made me think there was something deeper I needed to pay attention to. Like many, I heard of Bowie’s death on Facebook, and my feed was overwhelmed with Bow-oddity.
It wasn’t the quantity of Bowie tributes that turned my head, but the quality. It was not that Bowie had merely influenced my creative friends, but the extent to which he did so. It was not that he was a groundbreaking musician for five decades, but that in music and fashion, lifestyle and beyond, he progressed and transformed, reinvented and challenged himself and the world around him until the very end.
It’s also made me think about what the lives of iconic artists like Bowie can mean. These people, who live beautifully and vulnerably, who take chances by being original, who push cultural boundaries, bucking and challenging norms and conventions glamorously, give many of us the cover and courage to do the same, to be who we are or who we want to be. They make it harder to hate, they unlock doors to beauty and ideas that would otherwise have remained silently shut.
Bowie’s death has drawn me back to his work, a morbid reality that likely would not have occurred for another 21 years had he lived to be 90. Likewise, Bowie’s death means millions of others will be drawn to re-examine as well, to seek and discover his beautiful impact. There’s light there, the world gaining a mass of new Bowie fans, his spirit, ideas, stamina and passion spread to a new wave and a new generation. Now, that is life after death.