GIF of Bowie's personas

art by Helen Green

When I woke up this morning and looked at the internet, I wasn’t prepared to go through various stages of grief, starting with a rock-solid denial: what? David Bowie isn’t dead. David Bowie cannot, in fact, die because he is a magical space being. Right? But no, it turns out he had cancer and died two days after his 69th birthday and final album release, which makes his album and his Lazarus video 1000% more badass.

So this morning, while I mourn the man who brought beautiful weirdness into a lot of people’s lives, I want to celebrate some of the damn important lessons I’ve gotten from Bowie’s work and life:

1. Create with your whole heart.

If I don’t put my all into something that I’m writing, I inevitably feel regret.”

David Bowie never hesitated to be his own exact flavor of weird. And he inspired a lot of other people to do their own weird thing, too. As a magical space being of weirdness, though, Bowie was also very studied in a wide variety of disciplines and had some pretty coherent creative processes. He was about actually creating things: he cited his futurism as a response to hippie-ism of the 60s. In this 2002 interview, Bowie states: “God, I hated the hippie period. They talked about being so creative, but there was so little creativity to it. Glam really did plant seeds for a new identity. I think a lot of kids needed that that sense of reinvention. Kids learned that however crazy you may think it is, there is a place for what you want to do and who you want to be.”

2. Reinvent yourself.

Bowie played rock, soul, R&B, new wave, electronic, glam, also acted in both theatre and film, studied mime, painted, and of course costumed himself in a variety of signature styles.

He also accumulated personas like other people accumulate accessories: Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, Alladin Sane, and more. He never let his art stagnate, and did the work necessary to keep himself from merely riding the fame train without also constantly innovating.

3. Let the personas that no longer serve you die.

David Bowie did a lot of cocaine in the 70s; for a while he lived on a steady diet of red and green bell peppers, milk, esoteric magic, and mostly cocaine. In his late 20s, though, he felt like he might die and started down the path to get clean. Part of that path, for him, was to retire Ziggy Stardust and effectively put to rest the much-beloved persona that spurred his drug use. At the height of his cocaine use, he also lived a persona who was effectively his shadow self, the Thin White Duke. This persona, too, Bowie put to rest once his usefulness had passed.

While I don’t expect everyone to live their lives through such carefully costumed personas, I do think that everyone who creates has personas attached to creating. As a freelancer, one of my frustration is that I’m not always sure where Work Anne and Writer Anne and just Anne overlap, or don’t. But I know that any persona I accumulate or story I tell myself doesn’t have to be permanent, and I can let them go if they’re no longer serving me.

4. Meet death head-on.

Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, released on his 69th birthday, is a “carefully orchestrated farewell” to his fans. He was very private about his cancer; he knew he was dying and made art accordingly. I imagine making Blackstar was a way for him to also bid farewell his all his personas, and himself. In a culture that fears death and does not speak of it, such work is impressive and beautiful.

My aunt speaks of “aging on purpose”…I think Bowie died on purpose. Which is the best one can ask for, really, out of life.

5. Contribute to the culture.

I suppose for me as an artist it wasn’t always just about expressing my work; I really wanted, more than anything else, to contribute in some way to the culture that I was living in. It just seemed like a challenge to move it a little bit towards the way I thought it might be interesting to go.”
Despite being fearlessly original, David Bowie wasn’t an island. His work with other artists and his keen sense of where cultural trends were headed and what’s important within all that both served to cement his place in music history. He helped us all be a little weirder, and kept thinking about how he and art and culture all fit together.


RIP, David Bowie. I am inspired by how hard-core you were, to the end: