David Bowie And The Strange Politics Of Keeping It Real

by Josh Strawn

The Man Who Fell To Earth has fallen back off it. We feel less complete and more alone, and for once this isn’t an exaggeration. There’s too much to be said, and too many trying to say it, so it’s probably a good idea for me to focus. The passing of David Bowie feels like the passing of an epoch for plenty of reasons, but one in particular feels worthy of special attention. He was the rock and roll embodiment of Picasso’s axiom that “art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.”

For quite some time, art and culture have been tailspinning into the oblivion of reality. Or “reality,” as it were. Music has long been used as ground zero for competing over authenticity: the authenticity of the artist, the work, the fan (or fans). But it’s impressive how authentic we feel David Bowie was, both to himself and to his work, but also to us as fans, while most of his career was an exercise in facade. Compared to the “realness” of those who never stop reminding us how “real” they keep it, Bowie was a master faker. Why didn’t that ruin what he did?

David Bowie’s legacy is especially important to me because I think he proved that one of the phoniest conversations in music and especially music scenes is, hilariously, over who and who isn’t a poseur. By nearly any measure, Bowie was a poseur. At any given moment he was shamelessly trying on someone else’s aesthetic. Poseurs only really bother us because we feel like they’re trying to get away with something. But Bowie never failed to credit the work of those that inspired him openly — from Scott Walker to Kendrick Lamar. If your music had inspired him, he’d take you on the road with him, talk you up in interviews, or just flat out ask you to make a record with him.

There is also the question of whether someone merely borrows, or borrows and gives back with interest? Who could argue that Bowie just gave us another Another Green World? He gave us something more, he gave us Low. Neither was Outside recycled Nine Inch Nails. Bowie wore his affections for Eno, Trent Reznor, Placebo, and plenty of others on his sleeve. His passion for the things he loved permeated the music he made. And yet when we discuss his output we rightfully say that he seemed “not of this Earth,” that his talents seemed “otherworldy” and “godlike.” This would seem to me to prove that artifice and influence are not interferences to creativity but their very lifeblood. It is how we negotiate the other details that matters.

It seems to me as if Bowie is just the most shining example of a wider truth about making music. When an artist is passionate about that which they love, successful at making great art by throwing themselves into it, and gracious to those that provided the inspiration, it negates the debate over their authenticity and legitimacy.

But on another level, the contemporary preoccupation with “realness” and with the extra-musical context of an artist’s life details, quotations, actions, and views is severely at odds with the very notion of imagination. Bowie feels so much larger than life because he imagined so many worlds, so many characters, threw us into so many scenarios and universes that we barely ever stopped to think about the “true David Bowie.” As much as he may have lauded the internet’s demystification of artist and fan, this is part of what makes him triumphant, and what sets his body of work apart. Did what David Bowie got up to in his private life have any bearing on the fate of Major Tom? Where did he go for dinner, and does he love or hate Quentin Tarantino movies? I couldn’t be bothered to care, I want to put on the records because they are mystifying. How far removed we’ve become from that most basic of dispositions.

But Bowie was ultimately authentic in the most important way. It was a realness in his creation, in the creating of selves and songs. He wasn’t exercised over the vocabulary of gender, Ziggy Stardust was a living walking, breathing challenge to his era’s preconceptions about sexual and gender identity. Ziggy was a vocabulary of its own. If feels almost too simplistic to say, but this is the difference between talking about talking about something and being the change you want to see.

Without David Bowie’s work, what are the chances I would have walked around my small, southern Virginia hometown in a miniskirt, fishnets, lipstick and eyeliner? Granted, they were all black and it was Bowie-via-Bauhaus, but my mother was in a whirl all the same. Even in the 90s, it felt dangerous to walk into a diner looking like that. I wasn’t standing in front of the courthouse with a placard, I was just making unsafe spaces for bigots with every public establishment I entered. It’s not unrealistic to say that as gender and sexual identity have come to the forefront as frontlines of political action, those experiences primed me. Indeed, the notions that gender is fluid and sexuality isn’t a fixed box of identity had become self-evident to me long before they were soapbox issues. A really large part of that has to do with having walked around Roanoke Virginia dressed like a satanic Aladdin Sane for years.


The work you create can create realities. The merger of your work with reality isn’t always necessary. Maybe it’s not even desirable. Bowie is a testament to the incredible power of artifice and imagination. Indeed, to their particular brand of honesty. To the value of doing and being rather than overtalking. I will be reminding myself of this for weeks, months, and maybe years to come. What is it that sets David Bowie’s performance of identities apart from the contemporary mode of performing identity? That’s a loaded question, and one I wish I could answer right now. But as with so many of the enigmas he left us with, I will spend the near future (and possibly the far future, should I be granted the time) trying to unravel it.

Joshua Strawn is a musician who currently resides in New Orleans. His current active projects include Azar Swan and Vaura. He is also an occasional contributor to The Daily Beast, The Talkhouse, Flavorwire, and Slutist. 

Top image via cine-real.com

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