I don't think we know we are in this song

By Pam ThurschwellJanuary 20, 2016

I don't think we know we are in this song

IT’S 5:00 AM. I’m watching clips of films of crowds in Union Square singing along to “Life on Mars” and crying. That’s par for the course this week. Like many others who had, apparently, incorporated David Bowie into themselves with a needy love they didn’t fully recognize or understand, I am trying to figure out why I am still in tears over a week after his death. Should I be done by now? But look: a bunch of cold New Yorkers holding candles, warbling, “It’s a godawful small affair,” and I’m gone again.

I don’t consider myself a drama queen (although you could ask around for a second opinion). Wouldn’t the sensible thing now be to rein in the tears and move along to the next grief stage? Instead, I’m dreading the end of this. I feel somewhere between affronted and chastised every time someone posts something on Facebook or Twitter that is not about him. I just signed a petition to get his picture on the £20 note. I guess I’ll resign myself to capitalism for a little longer if I can see Bowie every time I go to a bank machine. 

I want to try and understand why Bowie’s death has affected me this way. I’m not going to rehearse, in any detail, all the perfectly right and true ways in which Bowie was phenomenal, and his death an incomparable loss: as a musical experimenter, a rock star, a beacon for disaffected, frightened freaks and adolescents, a queer role model, a brilliant song-writer, a charisma machine, an alien from the future, a creative force, a generous interviewee, the best possible advertisement for bad teeth and different colored eyes, he was a shape-shifting revolutionary. He made taking yourself too seriously look good, but then worked well with Muppets. He seemed both restless and serene. He constantly made mistakes, and yet, in the end, got everything, always, completely right, even death. I listened to Blackstar for the first time through last night. It’s not just good, because of the way he released it, or because it’s his final album and part of the ongoing work of art that was his life and death. It’s just so damn good. 

But if you’re bothering to read this now, you surely know all these things.

My relationship with David Bowie is as unique, and ordinary, as everybody else’s. As a teenager, I was a fan in a way that felt like deep fandom to me, but I didn’t wear more make-up because of him; I never glammed up. As a 16-year-old overweight, grumpy suburban girl, I was more inclined to try and make myself disappear. I didn’t come out because of him, but I liked the fact that others did; I never gave Low or Lodger much of a chance. I had a black and white poster of him, cigarette dangling, in my bedroom, and kept Station to Station and Ziggy on the turntable for long stretches. His songs made teenage alienation bearable and potentially sexy. With Bowie, the fabric of middle-class American life became less boring; he gave us something fabulous to aspire to, even in our everyday acts of rebellion. When a friend’s father lectured her and her younger brother about how they should never forget that these were their golden years, the younger brother famously muttered “wop, wop, wop.” When we stayed up for 24 hours in our high school gym helping to run a volleyball marathon for world hunger (yeah, it didn’t make much sense then either) we played “Heroes” in hour 24, and all cried from exhaustion, because of David Bowie and the fact that we loved each other so much. When MTV shimmied its way into our 1980s high school world, we watched the videos for “Let’s Dance” and “China Girl” approximately one million times, and secretly believed that he was hotter in our sad Reaganite decade then he had been in his coke-fueled, thin, white musical heyday. He was my imaginary boyfriend. I assume he was everybody’s imaginary boyfriend in the ‘80s. I saw him live on the Serious Moonlight tour, which was awesome, and on the Glass Spider tour, which was not, but still, I was in the same room with David Bowie, twice. We puzzled over Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, and nearly demanded our money back for The Hunger when he aged rapidly and got sealed in a coffin after the first 10 minutes. As a budding literary critic, he gave me plenty to obsess over. I parsed lines with nerdy intensity. Defeated by the fact that Google did not yet exist, I consistently misheard lyrics: “The European ham is here,” “The jacket fits, you put it on.” Everything he wrote was deep, or funny. He made me feel like I could be deep and funny too.

I went to college and grad school, belatedly discovered Young Americans and Aladdin Sane and Hunky Dory, revised my opinion of Let’s Dance several times, and ignored the ‘90s. Google was invented. I never stopped loving him but he became less central to me. When news of his death came through, our copy of the CD of Blackstar was on the dining room table as yet unopened. I’ve been a puddle for six days. So what is this about?

If, for me as an adolescent, Bowie’s music and image was about escape from the often depressing and limiting real into an alien glamorous life, at some point in my middle age, Bowie’s music started to sound and feel a little different. In recent years I’ve noticed the way his work always embodies a relationship between individual desire and alienation, and the communal negotiation of these feelings. So much of his best work is set in futuristic landscapes that prefigure the rapid acceleration of the effects of climate change and late capital we live with today. Bowie might really be the first pop star of the Anthropocene. Bowie of the ‘70s might have wanted you to keep dancing and kissing people while the glitter fell, but that dancing and kissing usually took place in the shadow of death (the Cabaret, Weimar republic, feel of “Time,” for instance). ‘70s Bowie was a decadent —  entranced by the end of things, and what endings made possible. Ziggy can make it all worthwhile as a rock star, but his doing so is predicated on “Five Years” the first song on the album, which announces that life is ending: “News guy wept and told us the earth was really dying/cried so much his face was wet/then I knew he was not lying.” I read a great article this week about Bowie’s fascination with science fiction, but what he’s most interested in, it seems to me, is the creative possibilities that emerge from the end of the world, in fantasy and reality. He would have staged Orwell’s 1984 if Orwell’s estate had let him. What happens when a repressive society destroys itself? Does another one take its place? Will we become cannibals? (See “We are Hungry Men”.) Or will we make something different happen? Will there be opportunities for new and different life forms (homo superiors), attachments, art, music, love, sex, enjoyment?   

At the end of Todd Haynes’s luminous 1998 film about glam, Velvet Goldmine, the Iggy Pop-ish Curt Wild is talking to the once glam and out, now closeted and defeated, reporter played by Christian Bale, about what happened to the David Bowie-ish, shapeshifting, star Brian Slade who they both loved, and who disappeared in the ‘70s, to return in the ‘80s, disguised as a mainstream, corporately controlled stadium act. Wild says, “We set out to change the world but wound up just changing ourselves.” “What’s wrong with that?” Bale’s character asks. Wild replies, “Nothing, if you don’t look at the world.” The camera then pans over a grey version of the film’s present, a 1980s in which exuberant, queer, colorful glam is gone, and a homophobic, vaguely fascistic, Orwellian society reigns. In this final scene grey teenagers look hopefully toward the sky, where at the start of the movie, a spaceship set an infant Oscar Wilde down on earth to become the first pop star and, like Bowie, to blast the world out of its closets, into the realm of the possible. 

Velvet Goldmine’s ending might be read as a critique of the narcissism and the lack of politics, of its central pop star character, but it is not, I think, a critique of Bowie or of glam. The movie incorporates many of Bowie’s most central historical and literary influences into its plot (the present is Orwell’s homophobic, repressed and corporate 1984; the past is Oscar Wilde; glam is the superhero who tries to make the past possible for the present*). The movie doesn’t separate the personal from the political, and Bowie’s music never did either. Bowie did look at the world — he looked hard. In so many of his songs the glitter is framed by an unbearable social melancholy and a prescient sense of pervasive social injustice (“Look at the law man beating up the wrong guy,” or think about “Panic in Detroit”). But the glitter always matters. A lot. “Five Years” shows this with effortless self-awareness: “I think I saw you in an ice cream parlor, drinking milkshakes cold and long, smiling and waving and looking so fine, I don’t think you knew you were in this song.” We are all in that song, and we all need to know it, and not know it at the same time, so we can find a way to fight back against the end of the world, while smiling and waving and looking so fine.

On Monday, minutes after I first saw the news of Bowie’s death, my friend Dana messaged me from across the Atlantic, “Damn,” and then, “We’re really never going to be young again, are we?” I wrote back: “No. Yes. Always.” And then I started the crying which is yet to let up. If being young means holding on to the possibility that the future might turn out differently than the past or the present, then yes, we have to keep being young, even as we mourn and celebrate what Bowie meant to our own individual youths. Maybe it is that sense of a future — both dark and light — that Bowie’s music gave me, and why I keep crying for his loss. The vibrancy of political, creative, sexual, possibility; a version of glittery individual freedom, that doesn’t negate communal responsibility but feeds on it (“Give me your hands, ’cause you’re wonderful”). A promise that even though we are all in this song, and it’s a dire one, there can still be milkshakes, just look around. That’s why at the end of Velvet Goldmine, those grey kids are looking up to the sky, for the eternal return of their prophet, their alien, their Oscar Wilde, their David Bowie. We should be grateful for the five, or sixty-nine, years we had him. What a surprise.


For Dana Luciano 

*For a related discussion of Velvet Goldmine, see Dana Luciano's “Nostalgia for an Age Yet to Come: Velvet Goldmine’s Queer Archive” in Queer Times, Queer Becomings . Ed. E.L. McCallum and Mikko Tuhkanen. : SUNY Press, 2012.

image: by craniodsgn, cc


Pam Thurschwell is a Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Sussex.

LARB Contributor

Pam Thurschwell is a Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Sussex, and the author of Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking, 1880–1920 (Cambridge University Press, 2001) and Sigmund Freud (Routledge Press, 2000). She is currently working on a book called Keep your Back to the Future: Adolescent Time Travel across the 20th Century. She likes to write about pop music whenever she can.


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