The David Bowie Effect

This has been a rough week for celebrity deaths. Yesterday, Celine Dion’s husband and manager, René Angélil passed away. Before him well known film actor Alan Rickman also died. And before him stage actor Brian Bedford. Each of these men were famous enough to trend on twitter, at least in Canada, after their deaths, but the one that started it all off was the iconic singer David Bowie.  Bowie trended the longest, because for a long time, everyone was talking about him. There was even a little bit of backlash, with a few people writing about how too many people were talking about him. And while they felt some backlash of their own for their perceived lack of sensitivity, they raised a valid question. But they weren’t simply saying that too many people were talking about his death or that he didn’t warrant the attention, but that given what they knew about the friends that share social media space with them, the amount of attention Bowie had been given after his death far outweighed the attention he had been given before his death.

There might be something bigger at work here. In some ways, this is the way that we as a society collectively mourn, but posting articles, videos and musings about a celebrity after they have died. It’s a pretty good bet that if someone older than 60 is trending on twitter, there is pretty chance that they’ve died. But there was something about David Bowie that I think made his death different.

I should make clear that I wasn’t a David Bowie fan. It wasn’t that I actively chose not to like him, but I was (and in some ways still am) just mostly so far outside the popular currents that I don’t know who is big and why. So, I am commenting, not as a fan, or as a critic, simply as an outsider.

But the nature of the comments about Bowie were different than other celebrities. With Rickman and Bedford, people talked about their acting abilities, and about the connections that they as fans made to the characters they portrayed. Alan Rickman was great at being a bad guy, but I also appreciated how he walked the fine line between good and (perceived) bad as Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility and as Harry in Love Actually. And while I wasn’t a frequent guest at the Stratford Festival, I did appreciate Brian Bedford’s voice performance as Robin Hood in Disney’s animated adaptation. While there were some fans talking about their love of David Bowie’s music, as many or more were talking about the “roles” that he played. And I don’t mean the parts he played in various TV shows and movies (although I loved his appearance on The Extras) and I’m not saying that his presence was anymore artificial than any other celebrity. But David Bowie was the kind of celebrity that was known as much for his personality as he was for the art that he performed (as though the line between art and personality can neatly be drawn).

At the peak of his celebrity, David Bowie was “weird.” (I don’t use that word derogitorily, but any alternative I could think of, ie. outsider, different, alternative, freak, etc. either also carried the same stigma or just sounds too soft to be accurate, so I add the quotes to lessen the blow.) That was just who he was. And maybe it helped to deliver the “weird” music that he was writing, but it also helped to endear him to young people who saw themselves as “weird.” And I think therein lies our current juxtaposition. It is surprising to see how many people now identify as having been fans of David Bowie. For most of us, there is room in our social sphere for “weird” people, and we expect them to like and identify with “weird” celebrities. It can be surprising now to see which of our friends was a fan of David Bowie, because we didn’t see them as being “weird” then, at least not “weird” enough that they needed a “weird” hero to give them the courage to continue living out their “weird”ness.

The thing is, most of us saw ourselves as “weird.” Despite our constant striving to be “normal,” many of us accepted that we could never quite fit in, or that the only reason we did fit in was because people liked the artificial self that we were presenting more than the “weird” self that we were hiding. You can test this out. Look around the high school classrooms of your memory and estimate what percentage of people you thought were “cool” and which ones were “weird.” Now do the same in the professional and social circles today. But don’t just think about it, ask people if they were “cool” or “weird” in high school. You will be surprised at how many thought they were “weird.” From time to time we get reminders of the emotional trauma people carry from the social rejection of their youth. Maybe we can call this the David Bowie effect.

There is a lesson here, that many of us learn as we age, but we don’t always manage to teach it to our young people. “Cool” and “Weird” are artificial and unhealthy. Striving for those labels for ourselves and attaching them to other people are destructive for us, for other people, and for the prospect of building authentic, life-giving relationships with them. There are still young people in our world who need a David Bowie to make them feel better about who they are, but even more than that, they need regular people to throw off these labels that limit and hinder us.

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