If you’re a fan of David Bowie, then you probably found that something like a new epoch began when his death was announced ten days into 2016. It’s become a cliché of recent anniversary tributes to note all that has happened since then. Perhaps, to your ear, the Brexit vote and Trump’s election rang the death knell on the Western fantasy of liberal, pluralistic democracy. Even if they hadn’t, you’ve likely spent the last year sequestered in your home, wondering if the cities you love will bear any resemblance to the streets we vacated in March of 2020. Bowie’s passing didn’t initiate this sequence of events, but a glance at the day’s headlines feed the feeling that, for the last five years, we’ve been living in a different world than the one we had known.
The irony is that Bowie’s music is arguably perfectly tuned to a historical moment he didn’t live to see. As Simon Critchley writes in The New York Times, “the dystopian world that his music describes seems closer than ever,” especially his emphasis on the impulse toward isolation that often attends society’s disintegration. But what does isolation mean in 2021, and what can be gained by taking his work as the accompaniment to pandemic life?
I was living in Boston in March 2020, and when the state of Massachusetts went into lockdown, I thought that this would be the time to return to the disavowed icon of my late adolescence, Steven Patrick Morrissey. I even created a Spotify playlist called “Our Patron Saint of Social Distancing,” but I rarely used it. From Meat is Murder’s “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” (1985) to Years of Refusal’s “Something Is Squeezing My Skull” (2009), Morrissey often links loneliness with social rejection. This was why he appealed to me as a teenager, and why I couldn’t embrace him as my coronavirus soundtrack. Pandemic isolation is the outcome not of social or romantic rebuffs but a public health mandate to mitigate the spread of a deadly virus. In other words, it’s systemic in the truest sense of the word: produced by institutions rather than individual interactions and pervasive to the point of becoming universal. Morrissey’s lyrics are, for me at least, too solipsistic, too obsessed with the feeling of being uniquely unwanted to speak to the present.
Bowie’s treatment of isolation is different. Notoriously shy and private, he rarely wrote lyrics that partake in Morrissey’s diaristic mode. Instead, his interest lay in pinpointing the sensations and habits characteristic of the person in isolation. His treatment is thus much more expansive than Morrissey’s and more capable of resonating with the peculiar qualities of isolation in 2021. Instead of simply being unable to access a social world, we’ve lost it. With it have also gone those premises about time and space that we take for granted: that time marches forward and that space is infinite. On most days, the horizons of one’s world are restricted to the walls of one’s home and, maybe, the 1-mile walkable radius around it. Maybe I’m projecting here, but I find this conflation of isolation and immobility everywhere in Bowie’s lyrics, such as in the substitution of “so lonely” with “nowhere” in “Be My Wife” (“Sometimes you get so lonely / sometimes you get nowhere”). His music is also full of sonic translations of the sense of stasis that has become inextricable from isolation, such as the anguishing entreaty “We should be on by now” that concludes “Time,” a song that imagines temporal progression as an absent actor who has yet to make his onstage entrance.
These twinned preoccupations of immobility and stasis found their visual manifestation in The Man Who Fell to Earth, a film that registers much differently if, like me, you decide to rewatch it while sheltering in place. Bowie plays Thomas Newton, a visitor from a drought-ravaged planet who cannot return home because his rocket has crashed. Unlike the earthling characters, Newton visibly doesn’t age. Instead, he remains in the same situation, trying to figure out how to leave Earth and, in the meantime, how to occupy himself in his suite of rooms. The shots of Newton lounging before a wall of televisions are iconic, and they’ve become even more resonant in a time when toggling between social media feeds and streaming applications has become the default way of waiting out an apparently infinite pandemic.
The agony of Newton’s suspension is acute, but suspension isn’t without its benefits in Bowie’s work. Bowie characterized himself as an observer of societal crises and transformations. He emphasized that he does not — even could not — use his music to analyze or propose a solution to ongoing problems, but he could use this medium to articulate the “impression” that experiencing these crises left on his mind and body. He made this point in a 1993 interview with reference to “Black Tie, White Noise,” a song about the Los Angeles protests that followed the acquittal of four LAPD officers for the beating of Rodney King. The refrain “You won’t kill me” morphs from an insistence that the song’s implied addressee, Bowie’s then-new wife Iman, isn’t a threat to an epiphany about the unjust and unequal treatment of white and Black men before the law. The reggae beats implicitly register the recognition that music is itself a domain of racial inequality, where “white noise” is often the product of uncredited Black labor.
A longtime critic of racial bias in his industry, Bowie would reject being elevated as the musical spokesperson for Black Lives Matter, but I find in his work constant articulations of other features that define the structure of feeling that is 2020-2021. I get startled by those moments where he twists a sentence across a line break to articulate the experience of finding one’s assumptions and expectations swiftly, brutally overturned. In “It’s No Game,” a story of fascist revolution, he turns the banal question “So where’s the moral” into an image of irrational violence, “when people have their fingers broken?” Sometimes he compacts such twists into a single line. Singing that “tomorrow’s never there” in “1984,” he pithily overturns the Hollywood and Broadway cliché that tomorrow will correct the pain of today (“after all, tomorrow’s another day,” “the sun will come out tomorrow”). Who doesn’t feel that “tomorrow is never there” during an unceasing pandemic and when the Constitution’s timeline for transferring power can no longer be taken for granted?
The opportunity that Bowie’s music offers, the chance to defer analysis by pausing to perceive and process, is needed more than ever. In pandemic life, meaningful social interactions have been replaced by an endless series of “takes” on social media and cable news networks. This culture of incessant analysis can leave one feeling like Thomas Newton, who does not seem to fully understand the images that comprise the horizon of his world. In one sequence, director Nicholas Roeg switches from panning across Newton’s television screens to rapidly cutting between close-ups of the TV images in which the apparatus — the television set — is kept out of frame. The result is a dizzying sequence of decontextualized content that prevents comprehension.
If Roeg’s film diagnoses the problem, then Bowie’s music provides the antidote by offering a language and set of sonic techniques for grasping what it’s like to lose a sense of community and the fantasy of civil society. But it also does more than this. It models how media can create virtual or proxy social worlds that can sustain us through moments of historical transition. What interested Bowie most about the person in isolation is how they create their own internal microworlds. Sometimes, media fails to offer this proxy social world, as Bowie poignantly represents in one of his most beloved songs, “Life on Mars.” With “her friend… nowhere to be seen,” a girl “hooked to the silver screen” goes to the cinema only to discover that the “film is a saddening bore.”
And sometimes, these proxy social worlds lead to something nefarious. In the era of Parler and QAnon, it seems prescient that media addict Thomas Newton turned into a fascist. Bowie took his wardrobe from Roeg’s set and became the Thin White Duke, a sleek provocateur who likened Hitler to a “rock star.” Unlike the unrepentantly nationalist Morrissey, Bowie later disavowed such statements as the outcome of heavy drug use, and his persistent antiracism and sympathy for the genuinely marginal make me inclined to bracket this part of his career. In fact, maybe a follow-up to Blackstar (2016) would have warned against these kinds of microworlds. Bowie’s famous prophecies about the internet’s “exhilarating and terrifying” potential to collapse the distinction between user and provider lead me to imagine him writing a song that, in the vein of “Valentine’s Day” (2013), probes the insurrectionist’s mind while keeping its malevolence squarely in view. Given Bowie’s tendency to self-reference, such a song might include a lyrical or musical allusion to “Quicksand,” which counters the speaker’s self-aggrandizing claims to be a hero in master propagandist Heinrich Himmler’s films with the refrain “Don’t believe in yourself / don’t deceive with belief.”
But sometimes, in Bowie’s stories, media fulfills the demand for connection in a way that’s figured not as fascistic assimilation but rather something like mutual porousness. For me, Ziggy Stardust’s opening hymn of apocalyptic despair, “Five Years,” is a description not of alienation but of the contagiousness of affect. Seared in my mind is the image of the newscaster who “cried so much his face was wet” as he tells viewers that the “earth was really dying.” The speaker later sings “it was cold, and it rained,” implicitly submerged in the newscaster’s tears. The crescendo builds into the haunting repetition of “five years!” which he croaks until the final fade-out. Bowie’s cracking voice indicates that he, too, is crying, and the transference of affect doesn’t end there. Listening to the raw vocal track on the fifth anniversary of his death, I found myself sobbing. I was mourning Bowie, but I was also thinking back to a trip I took to London at the start of 2017. The evening before my return to the States, I walked through the slick, dark streets of Soho — where the Ziggy Stardust cover was shot — and shed tears that mixed with rain as I listened to “Five Years.” The inauguration of a new president was less than a week away, and all I wanted was to remain suspended in Ziggy’s world. With international travel unfathomable for months and even years to come, that world now feels irrecoverable. Bowie’s dilatory music helps me grieve.
Did Bowie anticipate that listeners to “Five Years” would reciprocate his cathartic croaking? It’s impossible to say, but his songs often invite one to imagine mediated connections as reciprocal. In “Rock’n’roll Suicide,” the speaker asks for “your hand,” but in exchange he gives himself by promising “oh no, love, you’re not alone.” And one of the last images he gave us was of a reciprocal if fictive connection that enables one to escape the confines of one’s circumstances. In 2015, Bowie finally fulfilled his life-long ambition of writing a musical with Lazarus, which imagines Thomas Newton — still perpetually youthful and fortunately untainted by fascism — living in New York City but never leaving the confines of his apartment. Newton ultimately fulfills his desire to leave Earth thanks to a friendship with the “Girl,” who may or may not be a hallucination. In the play’s climax, he and the Girl make a wistful duet out of “Heroes,” a song about a couple who cope with the challenges of loving in a divided Berlin by imagining their affair as an epic narrative. Newton and the Girl’s performance similarly teeters on the border between reality and unreality. Together, they draw a rocket ship on the apartment floor, and the play concludes with a projection of Newton lying on the drawn rocket and flying off-screen. Is Newton finally returning home? Is he giving himself up to death, another way of escaping his earthbound isolation? Or is this escape occurring only in his mind? That Newton’s departure is only visible onscreen defers any definite conclusions.
Until this pandemic ends, the most we can hope for is the kind of connection and escape that Newton achieves at the end of Lazarus: virtual, mediated, but nonetheless palpable and sustaining. Bowie’s music provides that sustenance for me without extinguishing a desire for mutual co-presence; instead, it stokes it. Until such co-presence is safe, I’ll be walking around my neighborhood, listening to Station to Station or Heathen, ready to hear a musical line or poetic image that crystallizes the disorienting experience of living in the climax of whatever dialectic we’re currently in. But I’ll also be regularly watching the video of his performance of “Under Pressure” with Annie Lennox, from the 1992 Freddie Mercury tribute concert. The performance is in itself a testament to the coalitions that can emerge in the wake of a cruelly mismanaged pandemic (in this instance, HIV/AIDS). Their bodies slowly converge toward the end of the performance, apparently drawn together by both Lennox’s initiative and the magnetic pull Bowie incites when he pivots his body towards her. The combination of choreography and lyrics serves as a reminder that pressure can cause matter to congeal as well as to explode. For all of his famed catastrophism, Bowie keeps the former option in play. It just can’t be taken for granted.