Bowie’s music made even the alienated feel at home

Published 7:00 am Tuesday, January 12, 2016

By the time this comes out, I’m sure you will have heard: David Bowie is dead.
In addition to an acting career and his life as a cultural icon, Bowie produced an impressive catalog of pop music. To me, his catalog was not only impressive in its volume, but in its ability to combine pop music, theater and emotional depth. Writing a catchy pop song is one thing. But writing a catchy song that also captures a familiar mood is another thing altogether, and this is what Bowie excelled at.
Whether one lives in a small, tight-knit community like Picayune or a metropolitan city, there are times in life when a person may feel apart from the community and the people who surround them. The theme of alienation is all around us in music—the narrative of a man outside the system pops up in every genre of music. But frequently, the feeling of alienation is illustrated through rebellion. And while rebellion incorporates much of the same feelings, it’s not the same thing.
Last month, much was made of Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday. For a while in mid-December, his music was inescapable. I could never get into Sinatra; all his coolness and bluster and charm always seemed foreign to me or weirdly disingenuous.
In “My Way,” Sinatra sings of leading the life of a self-centered megalomaniac whose deathbed reflections entail the most sophist sort of pretentiousness. As if, by not giving an inch, the narrator has proven his life well-lived.
Bowie wrote “Life on Mars” as a sort of response to “My Way.” The music is very similar, though not much else is. If you know the song, then you know the lyrics are a mess, jumping from one place to another, but with just enough tension to imply some sort of deeply personal trouble.
Unlike “My Way,” the song isn’t in first person, so perhaps it’s easier for the narrator to illustrate trouble without crossing a sad line into self-despair, but however he does it, Bowie managed to write a song that tells us at once: we’re alone, life is sometimes unfair but everything will be alright.
Such talent will be missed.

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