Weren’t we all part of Ziggy’s band?
I honestly have no idea how I was first introduced to David Bowie. It feels like he’s just always been there in my pop-culture consciousness, in some form or another, putting together tunes that spoke for so many generations.
But since I grew up in the 80s, I probably first discovered him while watching Labyrinth, playing the Goblin King, Jareth.
This incarnation of David Bowie was beautiful but arrogant, intent on making Sarah his slave – just like everyone else around him. In his final speech of the movie, he pleads “Just let me rule you, and you can have everything that you want.” He suggests that if she does everything he says, he will be her slave.
Naturally, Sarah replies: “You have no power over me.”
A perfect feminist rallying cry, and a line that those who have survived abusive relationships can surely relate to as well.
For a long time, this was the David Bowie I knew and loved – seductive, but controlling. A sorcerer. Someone who could rearrange time or turn the world upside-down at a woman’s whim, yet a man who still insisted that mastery over this woman’s entire life was equivalent to love.
I knew better.
But I guess it makes sense that one of his most memorable musical creations of the 1970s was Ziggy Stardust, a precursor egomaniac who appealed to the masses:
Ziggy’s song describes him as “well hung and snow-white tan,” someone who could “lick ’em by smiling.”
But even his bandmates contemplate destroying him. (“So we bitched about his fans and should we crush his sweet hands?”)
An ex-boyfriend took to playing Ziggy’s song with his bar band. I think he fancied himself a tastemaker and trendsetter like Bowie – at least in his own mind. (The band also ironically covered OutKast’s “Hey Ya!”, and this song proved more popular with their “fans” – i.e. two female friends who attended every performance, cheering loudly while the rest of the bar ignored the band entirely. This is at least partially why I really enjoyed reading Sally Basmajian’s “Hey Ya!” story for my forthcoming anthology, Everything I Need to Know About Love I Learned From Pop Songs.)
Another ex loved Queen, so the Bowie/Freddy Mercury duet “Under Pressure” was in heavy rotation in his bedroom. I always wondered whether this counted more as a Bowie song or a Queen song, since the tune appeared on albums from both musicians.
But one of my personal favorite Bowie periods is his Berlin collaboration with Brian Eno. Particularly “Heroes,” a song so passionate that it comes complete with its own scare quotes.
Who doesn’t love this song, with its rousing chorus of “We can be heroes, just for one day”?
Hell, it’s even been turned into a mishmash music video by Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge, so if you ever hear some fool trying to tell you that art-rock doesn’t mean anything to the masses, just cite this song as a counter-argument.
Bowie has been a little bit of everything to everyone, which is why I think we’ve all taken his death so hard. He inspired the freaks to be themselves, encouragement we can all use from time to time. He showed musicians that taking chances could lead to huge success. And he showed true artists that while not every artistic choice might turn out to be commercially successful, it’s always important to remain true to yourself.
After all, you can’t give everything away…
Today Amanda Palmer has released Strung Out in Heaven: A Bowie String Quartet Tribute, which I highly recommend procuring if you’ve ever loved David Bowie. Although the tunes picked for this album are certainly the saddest ones in Bowie’s catalog (including a mournful take on “Heroes”), and are likely to move you to tears, they’re beautifully arranged and performed by Palmer and her musical partners in crime.
Bonus: part of the proceeds go towards cancer research (the cancer research ward of Tufts Medical Center, to be specific), so we can all, really and truly, be heroes – just with one play.
P is for Pop Songs
Read about more of the songs that have shaped my love life.
Now it’s your turn
What pop songs make you think about love? How have pop songs influenced your relationships? Tell me a story, and you could be featured in the second volume of Everything I Need to Know About Love I Learned From Pop Songs. Click this link for details on how to submit, and stay tuned for the launch of the first volume on February 12.