This Time It's Personal: Why Losing David Bowie Means Something Different to Everyone

 (via NPR)

It is 1997, I am 13 years old, and I have the house to myself.

This is a situation people relish at any age -- but when you are 13 years old and confused all the time and spend most of your days in seemingly vacuum-sealed rooms, occupying a series of plastic chairs lined up next to other plastic chairs containing other 13-year-olds who are seething with tumultuous home lives and hormones and unfortunate harbingers of facial hair, a house to yourself is a kingdom. It is possibility.

I already know about music as an escape hatch: I have my stereo in my room, and my mixtapes made off local alt-rock radio stations, and the East Bay punk bands in whom I have such incredibly fierce pride that I hope it helps cover for the fact that I am not actually drinking forties down by the BART tracks with safety pins on my clothes; I am home doing my homework, for now, at least.

If I've realized that music can be a tunnel out, though, I am still learning its dimensions -- how far back this goes, how far off it can take you, how long other people have known about this -- and I am doing that by going through my parents' records. They are vaguely alphabetized. Joe Jackson, Janis Joplin, The Kinks, Carole King.

My first real encounter with David Bowie is this: I take Hunky Dory off the shelf, consider its weathered exterior, pull the record from its sleeve, and place it on the turntable. Then I sit cross-legged on the couch -- between the two speakers, enveloped by sound -- and listen with what feels like every pore on my body.

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I am now in my thirties, and I have known for some time now, while also knowing this is a fantastically unreasonable standard, that all I want from music -- from any art, really -- is for it to make me feel the way I felt the first time I heard the first chorus of "Oh! You Pretty Things." The overwhelming, visceral thrill of it: the moment the strings and bass knock your feet out from under you, the seconds-long swoop of going upside down on a rollercoaster -- and when the chorus is over, the awareness that your ear is straining for it to come around again, but also that the anticipation is half the fun. That something with no measurable or useful effect on your body has seemingly rewired your brain to make you crave it; that you are now a junkie; that because of sounds recorded in 1971, you just went somewhere else entirely while sitting in your parents' living room in 1997. The slow realization that music maybe isn't a secret escape hatch, but rather a vast entry portal hiding in plain sight, and what's on the other side is maybe much, much bigger than you ever imagined.

Look, I know that writing about a David Bowie memory right now is self-indulgent. It feels gross, and it feels like not enough, and it would feel that way if I spent the next five years writing it, which I could very easily do. There's no way around this inadequacy: I could choose to put on my objective critic's hat and focus on how forward-thinking he always was; how tremendously gratifying it is that mainstream pop music was ever this deeply queer and challenging, and offer a hope that we ever get there again. I could say David Bowie's work is what all art should strive to be: a mirror, a warm blanket, a firepoker. And that even his death -- his just-released record, a final act of perfectly timed theater, so Bowie-esque you want to punch the guy -- should serve as an inspiration.

I could declare, correctly, that because I'm a heterosexual white girl he meant different things to me than he did to other people, people who saw themselves reflected in him for the first time, in real and irreplaceable ways. But I might also venture that one constant throughout his chameleon-like career was a sense of inclusivity alongside the playfulness, and the result was that once you let him in, his music had a mainline straight to your emotional gut no matter who you were; David Bowie would likely not care for the idea of posthumous ownership Olympics.

David Bowie performing in Hartford, Conn., in 1995.
David Bowie performing in Hartford, Conn., in 1995. (via NPR)

All of which is to say, there are a lot of pieces containing a lot of people's Bowie memories on the internet today, and none of them are going to be enough, and I want to suggest that that's okay, because the truth is we don't know how else to say thank you. We do know how to say "This is what he meant to me." And because he contained multitudes, it'd be odd if that outpouring were anything but prismatic.

So rather than clamor for one true legacy or final word on the man, I'd offer a step back and, if you can muster it, a tamping down of the inevitable cynicism about the way we process celebrity deaths via social media in 2016. I'm going to aim, at least, in scrolling through an endless feed of search engine-optimized rock star death #content and music videos and entire articles crafted around tweets, for a sober 13-year-old's sense of awe -- at David Bowie's art, at his humanity, and at the fact that it's possible for this one weird, beautiful human to have changed so many other humans in so many weird, beautiful ways.

We don't run into the streets so much anymore, as a society. We don't pound on neighbors' doors to spread the news. We're all sitting on different couches right now, behind separate computers, in separate orbits, with entirely different interpretations of what it is we've just lost. What we can do, together, is find ourselves some good speakers and hit "play."

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