David Bowie, a legendary music and fashion icon, passed away on Jan. 10 after an 18-month battle with liver cancer. Following his death, numerous artists and public figures paid their respects to the singer via social media by thanking him for being a source of inspiration throughout their lives. Last week, the entrance to the Infinite Corridor was embellished with a banner that paid homage to Bowie through his verse from “Space Oddity,” while Lobby 7 greeted the MIT community with imagery of his eccentric outfits. Surely, every Bowie fan can cite a multitude of reasons why this icon should be remembered and appreciated, but I can understand why someone who did not follow his career might ask a simple question — why should we care about David Bowie?
There are the obvious reasons. He was one of the defining figures of the glam rock era, with his alter-ego Ziggy Stardust becoming almost equally important as Bowie himself. His love for theater allowed him to develop convincing characters and stories, which served as solid foundations for flamboyant and unforgettable shows. He continuously experimented with music and created albums that — even when they did not receive widespread recognition — were ahead of their time. His outfits, just as outlandish, have become an artistic legacy of incontrovertible importance. He gracefully and successfully re-entered the music scene after a decade-long hiatus and managed to release two critically acclaimed albums before his death.
Besides his contribution to the world of art and entertainment, he was highly valued by other people, not only as a musician but also as a friend. In a recent interview for The New York Times, Iggy Pop described Bowie as “more of a benefactor than a friend” and that he “went a bit out of his way to bestow some good karma on [Iggy Pop].” Tony Visconti, Bowie’s producer, said that he was an “extraordinary man, full of love and life” in his Facebook post following Bowie’s death. But, in order to completely grasp why he was an important global figure, perhaps we should try to understand what he meant to those who never had the opportunity to meet him in person: children, teenagers, young adults, parents, grandparents, and dedicated music fans across the world.
I was first introduced to Bowie’s music as a 14-year-old, when a friend of mine directed me to his songs “Ashes to Ashes” and “China Girl.” It would be a stretch to say that I’ve been a devout fan of his music ever since. While his most prominent albums have become essential components of my music collection, I can’t say that I know the majority of his songs by heart or that I have appreciated the entirety of his work. However, since that day, I have committedly watched many of his interviews and studied his life and career, because there was something inexplicably touching about his character that made me want to learn more about this unique artist. It wasn’t until 2014 that I finally understood what made Bowie so special to me.
Two years ago, when I visited the exhibition “David Bowie,” the first retrospective collection of his work, in Berlin’s Martin-Gropious-Bau, I realized for the first time that David Bowie was more than just an icon in the history of music, fashion, and entertainment. Looking through the displays of his handwritten lyrics, original costumes, music videos, interviews, and album artwork, I sensed that his two opposing traits, grandiose eccentricity and subdued vulnerability, were, paradoxically, closely related. Whereas his style and demeanor at times made him seem otherworldly and almost inaccessible, his unapologetically honest character, showcased through his evolving work and emotional expressiveness, helped me see that he was just another human being, but who was — unlike many of us — not afraid to express himself and defy society’s oppressive stereotypes. In his own special way, David Bowie was the world’s favorite outcast.
So, why should we care? We should care because he undoubtedly changed the music industry and inspired other musicians, but also because he achieved so much more. He inspired actors. He inspired designers. He served as a role model (or anti-role model, for that matter) to children, teenagers, rebels, music fans, and adults who wanted to immortalize their youth. He wore outlandish outfits that remain avant-garde even today. He played with the notion of ambiguous sexuality when the world was struggling to accept the idea of alternative sexual identity. He challenged the world by fighting the old-fashioned concepts of polarized masculinity and femininity. In other words, most importantly, he showed that there is value in being a misfit.
Rest in peace, David Bowie. The world will never forget what a bright and shining star you were.