I come from solidly working class people. We liked Garth Brooks and NASCAR. We prayed over each meal. We went camping. We hunted. We believed America was the best country in the world, and felt lucky to be born here. Those of us who were old enough to vote, voted mostly Republican.
As I grew up, though, my tastes diverged. In the beginning of my adolescence I discovered rock and roll and sleeping in on Sunday. I discovered black lipstick and The Sandman.
Finding David Bowie, then, was inevitable.
It happened like this:
I was working my way through the fantasy section at my local Hollywood Video. Of course, I eventually came to Labyrinth. I’d heard of it, seen merchandise at Hot Topic and Spencer’s, so I picked up the case and took it to the checkout desk, where a scornful teenager removed the red plastic lock and handed the DVD back to me with a sneer.
It was the kind of movie I enjoyed–dark, mysterious, with the air of a myth about it–but it was something more, too. I felt a magnetic pull toward Jareth, despite the crazy hair and obnoxious cod piece. The next day, on my lunch break at the Target where I worked part-time, I picked up the only David Bowie CD the store had: The Best of Bowie.
From there, I was transported. I read biographies and downloaded more music from Limewire, anything I could get my hands on. Everything about Bowie fascinated me. His androgyny, his alter egos, the range and variation of his music, the way he combined spectacle with art to create something transcendent.
All of the angst I’d been carrying around inside of me, all of the worry that I was somehow broken, destined to be miserable for the rest of my life, began to lift, the way a fog does when the sun rises.
Here was someone who had broken all the rules and come out wildly successful. Here was someone who had experimented–with sexuality, with drugs, with music, with art–and had found a new path outside of rigid gender roles and ideas of what music could or should be. Here was someone with many identities that shifted and changed and evolved.
David Bowie taught me how to embrace my difference. My weirdness. And to use it as a guide to create my own art, in my own way. I could like The Sandman and The Dukes of Hazzard at the same time. I could read the classics and discard their lessons, or find new ones in their old pages. I could wear black lipstick and fishnet stockings one day and jeans and a t-shirt the next. I could do all these things, and it was okay. I was okay.
David Bowie showed me what was possible. He gave me courage when there was no road forward, and I had to cut my own path. He helped me flourish at a time when it feels all the world is against you, is fighting to cut you down and flatten you. David Bowie helped me fight back, helped me claim my own space in this tumultuous, chaotic world.
And he has been there, all through my adolescence and my twenties, always showing me something new. Always opening up new possibilities, new delights, new conversations.
This is not an important story because it happened to me. It’s an important story because it happened to me, and thousands–if not millions–of others. David Bowie helped free the wild and creative person in each of us.
I think that as a teenager, I never sought out Bowie’s full discography because I never wanted to come to the end. I held onto that feeling of expectation, of discoveries unmade, of treasure to unbury. And now, even though we have come to an end of sorts, I cling to those expectations and to the knowing that as with any good art, I will never exhaust its possibilities.