I am a Bowie girl. Not literally: I’m a little too young to have swiped my face with glitter and run out in lime-green platforms to see David Bowie storming through America in 1972 and 1973 with the Spiders from Mars, when he sent queer and alien dispatches across a heartland primed for them by Stonewall and women’s lib and the sexual revolution but also feeling the slap of the Silent Majority as the Nixon era lumbered on. On that tour, Bowie tangled into all kinds of strange positions with the guitarist Mick Ronson, being the freaky dream of the teens who had dyed their hair strawberry to look like him, the ones who heard him when he rode the glammed-up jump blues chord progression of his anthem, “Changes,” to new heights, wailing, “Turn and face the strange!” His fans were the strange, and Bowie had finally given them a way to show it. The press called them Bowie boys and Bowie girls because there was no other name for them yet: no pansexual, no bi-curious; yes freak, but that felt like a hippie term and this wasn’t a hippie thing. “I’m just a space cadet, he’s the commander,” one bubbled to a documentary filmmaker during that era, inching toward self-definition inspired by the playful wink of her star. “I guess I’m living my fantasy.” I was 10. My dreams were mostly shaped by Paul McCartney and The Partridge Family. That I could be plastic and fantastic hadn’t occurred to me yet.
I became a Bowie girl in that way kids on the outskirts do, by buying an album: Diamond Dogs — released in 1974 but making it into my hands in more like 1978. By then Bowie had ditched the Spiders, given up glitter for zoot suits, done another American tour in which he floated in a proto-Cirque du Soleil contraption above the audience while singing “Space Oddity,” made a Philadelphia soul album that introduced Luther Vandross to the world, and sung “The Little Drummer Boy” with Bing Crosby on a Christmas special. (See, Mom, rock stars aren’t that bad!)
But on the Diamond Dogs cover he was still a weirdo — half-man, half-beast, in a creepy drawing by the Belgian artist Guy Peellaert, his gaze confrontational (my version had the genitalia airbrushed out, a sop to the American record label). The songs inside were partly inspired by George Orwell’s novel 1984, a fact that made me realize something central to my forming identity: It was possible to love, and gain inspiration from, both reading and rock ‘n’ roll. And there was “Rebel Rebel,” with its off-kilter riff that felt like the churning of my teenage body and its instructions for surviving the crush of conformity: You tacky thing, you put them on! To this day, my most immediate high school memory is of standing at the bus stop in the Seattle rain, trying to open up the gatefold to gaze at Bowie’s beyond-human body in full without getting it wet. I wanted the jocks waiting with me to see it, too. It was evidence that the strange was bigger and more powerful than what the arty kids at the far lunch table could articulate.
By 1983, when I first saw Bowie perform, the Bowie girls and Bowie boys had been absorbed into the MTV era, the ch-ch-ch-changes they’d accomplished newly threatened by yuppieism and AIDS. Some of my friends thought Bowie had turned frivolous, with his platinum quiff and songs about dancing — he was trying to be New Wave, and we had actual New Wavers like Annie Lennox for that, not to mention the unkempt rockers of the emerging indie scene. Why couldn’t Bowie have just stayed in admirable exile in Berlin, making highbrow noise with Brian Eno? (We were too provincial to understand that by working with the great producer Nile Rodgers, Bowie was simply updating the R&B-inflected sound that had been his true love since his youthful days in Paris, before Ziggy was even a twinkle.) Basking in his stanky-leg Elvis moves and the killer rhythm section of Tony Thompson and Carmine Rojas, though, I had no qualms. Bowie was showing me that pop, seemingly the opposite of freakiness with its sugar-dipped sensuality and embrace of the ephemeral and the easy, could convey crucial information about love and integrity and the grace that helps people survive ordinary days and nights. Later, music critics like myself would call this attitude toward the mainstream “poptimism.” Bowie had a term for it, too: serious moonlight.
At the time he told reporters that the phrase was meaningless — just “an Americanism I liked” — but like so much of what Bowie offered, serious moonlight resonated in its very playfulness. “There’s not a small amount of truth in cliches,” Bowie told the English critic David Thomas in 1983. “They spring from some eternal truth.” He called hits like “Let’s Dance” — the biggest of his career — “helpful music.” Like its inspirations — big band jazz, the rock ‘n’ roll Alan Freed played on the radio in the 1950s — this music tackled big, universal emotions in language and musical hooks that were more inclusive than confrontational. It was elegant. It placed Bowie within the orbit of more supposedly mainstream shape-shifters like Michael Jackson, and set the stage for Madonna, who that same year would debut her own platinum sound and style, inheriting Bowie’s role as the principal rhetorician of our pleasures.
I would see him perform again in the late 1980s with his band Tin Machine; in the San Francisco club Slim’s, I rushed the stage, and couldn’t believe that there was this actual (not very tall!) human in front of me, sweating (not too much, though) and jumping around just as any local frontman I’d see on a typical Tuesday would do. By this time, Bowie had starred as a lavishly mop-topped goblin in Jim Hensen’s fantasy movie Labryinth, and a new generation of Bowie kids was coming up, perhaps getting their own first glimpse of gender rebellion in his wonderfully camp performance. Three decades later, Labryinth still offers its benign vision of a polymorphous world to children like my own daughter, who became a Bowie convert at 9, falling in love with his “Magic Dance.”
And then in the late 1990s, I watched Bowie move comfortably into the role of elder, collaborating with Trent Reznor on songs that proved just how much his younger champion owed him. Bowie took the risk of performing before teenage industrial-rock dirtbags on a co-headlining tour with Nine Inch Nails, and I watched in horror as they streamed out after Reznor, who defined risk and freakiness for them the way Bowie had for me — and who had refused to headline over his own idol — ended his set. Bowie, of course, took it in stride. Before the tour had begun, he’d told Reznor that he intended to play his new electronic experiments from the album Earthling, and that meant he would probably lose the crowd. “I want to be like that guy,” Reznor reportedly thought.
Reznor is like that guy, and he’s not, just like all of us Bowie girls and Bowie boys. Nine Inch Nails would very likely never have recorded classics like “Closer” if not for Bowie, just as Prince may have never taken (or been allowed to take) the risks he took as an androgynous funk rocker in black bikini briefs, or Michael Stipe wouldn’t have escaped the indie rock box by writing “Crush With Eyeliner,” Kurt Cobain wouldn’t have dyed his own hair red, or My Chemical Romance wouldn’t have even existed. Would Rihanna and her collaborators had the vision that produced her Beautiful Nightmare tour? Would Katy Perry have kissed a girl in a video that was all day-glo suburban glam? These matters, alongside assessments of Bowie’s prodigious acting career and his countless collaborations with peers and inheritors ranging from Lou Reed and Iggy Pop to the Pat Metheny Group, Maria Schneider and Arcade Fire, will be celebrated and debated in the weeks and months and years to come.
“Every morning, I wake up and I think, ‘What would David Bowie do?’ “ Lady Gaga told an interviewer not long ago, invoking a cliche that, in truth, closely mirrors my own experience. This Bowie girl often awakens with one of his songs in my head, bouncing around like an affirmation I happily embrace. In my 20s, they were mostly somewhat petulant: Oh! You pretty things, don’t you know you’re driving your mamas and papas insane? Bowie gave me attitude. Then things got more complicated. We could be heroes, just for one day, its exhortation tethered to reality by an endlessly dropping guitar line — that crash of hope into reality defined my trip into full adulthood. Now, though, as I strive for balance and some semblance of maturity, it’s Bowie’s spoken introduction to “Modern Love” that asserts itself most frequently. I know when to go out, and when to stay in. Get things done! He’s ready to focus — and ready to dance. It’s a life lesson about balance, the one Bowie offered us right to the end with his brilliantly realized last release, Blackstar, issued just two days before his death. After all the freakiness and excess, the recalibration and exile, the experimentation and returning to his roots, he took the time to remind us: Pursue joy and make room for contemplation, do the work and appreciate the pleasure, never stop unless you want to, the changes are everything, hang on to yourself.