Chaos Does Not Mean Despair in Bowie’s Soundscapes

What Bowie's music describes, again and again, is that we were endlessly, relentlessly killing ourselves.

According to a group of international scientists, humankind has now had such a detrimental impact on our environment that we have shifted the planet into a new geological epoch. Through deforestation, burning fossil fuels, driving species extinct, dumping toxins, and using nuclear weapons, we have taken a process of incremental evolution that would usually take hundreds of millions of years — such as the move from Jurassic to Cretaceous — and squeezed it down to just 16,000.

We’re humans. That’s what we do.

Fittingly, the scientists are therefore proposing a name change: from Holocene to Anthropocene, baptizing this new age of self-destruction after ourselves.

A few days after this news was announced, David Bowie’s friends and family revealed that the musician had died, surrounded by family, after a year and a half battle with cancer.

As peculiar as this may sound, these two stories are inextricably linked. Not because some of Bowie’s songs — the oddly prophetic ‘Five Years’, for example — seem to describe exactly this kind of impending planetary destruction. Not because I would dare indulge the hyperbole of declaring that there was a before and after Bowie. Bowie isn’t global warning, or nuclear fission, or a meteor waiting to strike down the dinosaurs.

No. He’s those scientists.

Because just like those international researchers, Bowie was an artist who named, who gave shape, to epochs.

Bowie seemed to have an unmatched ability to identify and render in song the experience of generations, pouring a reflection of the world around him into his music and the personas through which it was given life.

It seems a cliché to repeat, but it’s true: his songs became the soundtracks to multiple decades. From ‘Space Oddity’ and ‘Letter to Hermione’ in the ’60s, to an output in the ’70s literally too expansive to list: ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Changes’, ‘Rebel Rebel’, ‘”Heroes”, ‘The Jean Genie”, ‘Sorrow’, ‘Life on Mars?’, on and on and on. From ‘Ashes to Ashes’, ‘Let’s Dance’, ‘Under Pressure’, and ‘Dancing in the Street’ in the ’80s to ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’ and Nirvana’s version of ‘Man Who Sold the World’ in the ’90s, to the ’00s and his post-9/11 grim introspection in Heathen, and his career-spanning Reality album tour.

His music always captured the temperament of the time in which it was released, effortlessly evolving through phases of pop psychedelia, crunchy rock, glam cabaret, freaky folk, jazz, punk, disco, electric experimentation. He could croon or roar, sweeten or sneer.

In the teens of a new millennium, a decade since he was healthy enough to tour his music, he still remains as prescient and urgent as ever, having released two astonishing albums, The Next Day and Blackstar, replete with songs like ‘I’d Rather Be High’, ‘Dirty Boys’, ‘Dollar Days’, and ‘Lazarus’, that would make any other songwriter’s career on their own.

He even became an icon beyond the world of music. An entire age bracket grew up with the Labyrinth’s Goblin King fixed like a nostalgic load-bearing wall in their soul; and few could forget his hilariously deadpan contribution to Ricky Gervais’ Extras (‘Pathetic little fat man…’). He made the world his own runway for surreal fashions, and each one of his music videos was a unique avant-garde art film (and yes, I’m even including the surreally chipper ‘Dancing in the Street’).

More significant still, however, were the multiple character masks he employed: Ziggy Stardust; Aladdin Sane; the Thin White Duke; his later, meta-impersonation of himself; each embodying their age; each album these figures produced anthologizing the angst of the time in which they lived.

Like that body of international scientists, what Bowie’s music describes, again and again, is that we were endlessly, relentlessly killing ourselves. The characters in his songs shoot themselves into space on doomed missions. They sell the world. They burn out in rock ‘n’ roll suicides. Sometimes the melodies can barely keep themselves together, with song’s like ‘Aladdin Sane’, ‘Jean Genie’, and the final song of his last album ‘I Can’t Give Everything’, threatening to run themselves apart, fragile moments of harmony to be treasured amongst a cacophony of sound.

Bowie knew that we were killing ourselves, lying to ourselves, lost in ourselves. It’s why his work is peppered with references to anti-utopian literature like George Orwell’s 1984 and Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. Nonetheless, his songs are still defiantly hopeful. He used fantasy to reflect our devastation, but still saw something to celebrate amongst the despair.

Songs like ‘Life On Mars?’ might be the auditory equivalent of Hieronymus Bosch canvases, awash with police brutality, freaks and clowns, but they revel in the frenzied splendour of our disorder. In ‘Five Years’ the impending apocalypse leads people to recalibrate what is truly valuable amongst the detritus of life; the line ‘I never thought I’d need so many people’ dissolving the judgmental barriers that divide society. In the sublime ‘Golden Years’ he celebrates the sunset of a loved one’s glory. In ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’ he cries out passionately ‘You’re not alone’ to all those feeling disaffected and unseen.

Chaos does not mean despair in Bowie’s soundscape. It’s an invitation: ‘Gimme your hands,’ he says, ’cause you’re wonderful.’

For Bowie, in his music, in his myriad personas, when we embrace all our freaky, broken excesses, we’re finally free to be ourselves. We can embrace each other without pretention, all equal in our messy wreckages of self.

After all, we’re humans. That’s also what we do.

Right up to the end, with Blackstar, Bowie was continuing to describe his own — and humanity’s — demise, finding beauty in the predictable banality of our decay. His exquisite fugue ‘Lazarus’ is replete with lyrics that affirm and deny at once:

Look up here, I’m in Heaven.

I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.

I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen.

Everybody knows me now.

Like all Bowie’s work, it’s marvelously cryptic and personal. He’s singing both about himself, and a character divorced from himself at the same time. He’s alive while singing about being dead; now dead while singing about being alive. He’s free like a bluebird, he says, and ‘Ain’t that just like me?’, but that ‘me’ is profoundly, impossibly multifaceted. He’s ‘known’ now, but remains fundamentally obscured. We know of him, but cannot know him.

It’s also why the title and cover of his final album — the last album he knew he would release before his death — are so profound. For the Star Man, Ziggy Stardust, his final image is another star, now black, disassembling itself. It’s a powerful metaphor for an artistic icon in a state of self-assessment; compound and divisible, but always more than the sum of his constituent parts.

In his music Bowie transcends the temporal. He seems to stand outside of time to reflect our experience of it back to us. He names what we can’t articulate within ourselves. Like a scientist categorising the ages of global history he defines and gives voice to the experience of decades of lost souls; those estranged and bewildered on the closing out of the 20th century, stumbling blind and just as alone into the 21st.

Which makes it even more extraordinary that even here, on his last record, knowingly released days before his death, Bowie continues to voice the impossible. He eclipses death itself to comfort his fans, transforming into one last masque, the undying Bowie, to remind them that his music — music that like its creator was intimate and alien in one — will remain. Those extraordinary songs might be divorced, necessarily, from the man who brought them into being, but they still locate us, in time and experience. They remain a campfire around which we can gather, warmed even in the fading of the light.

So vale David Bowie — man who named the world.

Thank you for the gift of sound and vision.