Human, alien, other: Why we’re all still in love with David Bowie

Five years after his death, the superstar famed for his restless reinvention continues to inspire and fascinate fans

By the time you read this, the David Bowie tribute concert will be over, and an unholy alliance of Ricky Gervais, Yungblud, Boy George and the guy from Slipknot – and roughly two dozen more performers – should have put their best Bowie impressions to bed.

There’s still time, though, to catch the real essence of Bowie – in a stream of Lazarus, the musical featuring some of the artist’s final output, filmed in 2016 and available this weekend only, as well as BBC radio’s Bowie Five Years On strand and, on the iPlayer, Bowie at the BBC.

Last week, Bowie’s music arrived on TikTok. Friday will see Stardust, an unauthorised Bowie biopic starring Johnny Flynn, hit streaming platforms and with it, renewed debate about the vexed art of depicting beloved musicians on screen. Five years on from Bowie’s death, we cannot, it seems, stop talking about him.

The reasons are many: there’s probably one for every Bowie persona, from the embryonic 1960s modernist, to the sexually ambiguous meta-rock star, to the jazz and hip-hop-inspired author of Blackstar, his final, haunting album.

An artist’s death always gives their catalogues a new lease of life. But witness the deluge of Bowie box sets, live albums and rarities, the knick-knacks and ephemera, licensed and unlicensed, that have poured out in an effort to satisfy what is, without doubt, a desire to claw him back. This year holds the promise of more live albums, and an outside chance of a 1990s box set.

The clues as to this most charmed of afterlives begin in the music. Bowie straddles the realms of ephemeral pop and serious rock, with wholehearted diversions into soul, disco and dystopian, experimental sound-making. People continue to feel very strongly – proprietorial, even, given the social media backlash that has surrounded Stardust – about their idea of Bowie.

Lazarus, from David Bowie’s last album, Blackstar – video

Bowie had the range and capacity to be an entire record collection. The big-suited, chart-facing 1980s Bowie, loved by radio and talk shows, shared a psyche with the art-rock drug enthusiast loved by music journalists and other supplicants at the unholy triptych formed by Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop.

Legend has it that a significant proportion of the people who saw the Sex Pistols went on to form bands. Bowie affected misfits and seekers in an even more profound way, lighting a touch paper in anyone too outrageous or misunderstood to be contained by their own “mansions, cold and grey”.

Designers, photographers, makeup artists and writers – creators of all kinds – responded viscerally to Bowie’s churn of personas, narratives, get-ups, haircuts, poses and pronouncements. Embodying the best of art-school creativity, he did this for several generations. Having brought a character and sound into being, Bowie also had the courage to burn the edifice down and start again, again and again, during the 1970s.

In embracing mime, space and Lurex, the popular and the highbrow, he formed the aesthetics of many of those who would go on to become British cultural gatekeepers, people who would green-light V&A exhibitions or special seasons of films at the BFI. It’s hard to think of a figure quite as radical as Bowie who is so adored – and so readily forgiven.

Few artists of any stature have totally unblemished reputations. But Bowie’s seems to have survived a time when he enthused about fascism and Hitler to Cameron Crowe in an interview during his Thin White Duke period.

He would, of course, backtrack on those statements, intimating that his copious drug use at the time was to blame.

‘An extraordinary, alien, otherworldly creature’: David Bowie 1947-2016

His stock was not irreparably damaged. Bowie’s truer nature seemed, if anything, that of an internationalist. Although utterly British – a Beckenham boy, tuned into US rhythm and blues and European modernism, a Carnaby Street swinger – Bowie was anything but a parochial homebody.

From his embrace of Kabuki theatre to Jacques Brel and his affinity for Berlin, Bowie was a world citizen. One of the greatest things about Bowie is this borderless quality – his unquenchable appetite for crossing disciplines, his ambiguity: the non-binary way he presented, decades ahead of the curve; human, alien, other. He was silvery, impossible to pin down. He endures, more strikingly now than ever, as a beacon of restless multiplicity.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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