I’m a Blackstar: the fashion of Bowie’s farewell

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 22 January 2016. This was easily the most difficult article I’d ever had to write, particularly given that this was for the Fashion section rather than Music, and I’m extremely proud of how it came out – this might be my favourite of all the articles I’ve done. It was difficult to find something to say about Bowie which didn’t feel obvious or overly sentimental, and I was pleased with the conclusion I eventually came up with.

It speaks to the particular genius of David Bowie that he approached his death as, first and foremost, an artistic opportunity. The man who created, adopted, and eventually outgrew Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke – icons that have spoken to generations of music lovers and fashion followers alike – found himself tasked with adopting one last persona, the mask he would wear for his final curtain call. His performance in his last two videos forms a kind of apotheosis; infused with a raw, seething energy, grinning maniacally, belting out lyrics whose full meaning only became clear in hindsight; “I’m dying to/ Push their backs against the grain/ And fool them all again and again”. The Bowie of these videos is melancholy and introspective, but brimming with the energy of a mad trickster god. It’s an image that has gone relatively unremarked-upon in the media coverage of his death; most obituaries carried photos of his younger days, generally photos from his glam rock ‘heydey’. Few of the recent Bowie tributes have highlighted the artist that actually presented himself to us in his final moments; a fashion icon with as much style and charisma as any number of sparkling starmen or malnourished aristocrats, deserving of a tribute of his own.

Given what we know in retrospect, it’s surprising how alive the video for ‘Blackstar’ feels. At the centre of it all is Bowie himself; or rather, three of him. Bowie moves from priest to heretic to nightmarish scarecrow, the instability of his identity reflecting the oddness of the lyrics. We never get a proper look at any of these characters; they’re shot at odd angles, cut between frequently enough that we are never allowed to get comfortable. But the most intriguing of Bowie’s characters is the one we first meet; nicknamed “Button-eyes” by the director, the character wears the same worn and shabby-looking suit as the others, accessorised with a white blindfold with, well, buttons instead of eyes. Lovingly ripped off from Coraline, it’s a look of almost poignant simplicity; after decades of radical image-changes, Bowie’s final character is created out of scraps. But it’s a look that implies, not blindness, but a different kind of sight; he knows something we don’t know.

Button-eyes appears again in ‘Lazarus’, the last video Bowie ever recorded. He’s lying in a hospital bed, his black buttons standing out against the whiteness of the sheets. This contrast forms the main motif of the video; once we see Bowie with his blindfold off he’s wearing a monochrome jumpsuit, jerking awkwardly as if trying to remember how to dance. What initially look like shafts of weak daylight are actually thin stripes of white, reminiscent of the outfit from his 1975 photoshoot with legendary photographer Steve Schapiro. But that sense of introspection is tempered with a fierce strain of modernity; the camerawork feels straight out of Christopher Nolan, and the aspect ratio is reminiscent of a smartphone’s vertical video, Bowie’s face filling the screen in the manner of a selfie. Bowie was a trend-setter, but he was also, always, a trend-follower. One of the first rock stars to embrace the internet, Bowie demonstrated a constant awareness and appreciation of modern technology. ‘Lazarus’ could only come from a man who completely understands the culture into which he is releasing his final statement.

‘Lazarus’ ends with Bowie retreating into the dark, literally making his final wardrobe change. The consummate performer, walking off the stage. Of the many epithets tossed around regarding Bowie, “style icon” is one of the most common. This is almost, but not quite, completely inaccurate; Bowie was not one icon, but several; undefeated David, inscrutable to the last. And while the fashion world is poorer for his loss, it’s important to keep the future in mind. Because while Blackstar is a self-eulogy, it’s one which emphatically insists upon life. This is the Bowie style; keep changing, keep moving, keep finding new things to do, even in death. It’s the means by which he becomes more than human, and he makes a point of bringing us along. Even as he departs, the door’s left ajar.

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“Something happened on the day he died…”

I woke up unusually early this morning. It was 8AM (which I know isn’t actually early, but shut up, I’m a student). My radio turned on, and the first thing I heard was “David Bowie has died today. He was 69”.
I couldn’t go back to sleep after that.

I’ve done the standard thing. I’ve surfed through facebook, posted a tweet with #RIPDavidBowie, I’ve visited the open threads, I’ve re-listened to ‘Blackstar’ and finally caught everything that was staring me in the face for the past two months.
But d’you know what?
Bowie deserves better.

I don’t claim to be an expert on Bowie. I’ve only actually listened to a handful of his albums (I’ve not even listened to Low or Station to Station yet) and his ‘Best Of’ compilation. But still. His work was important to me. His loss means something, especially since he made his last album into a glorious joke at all of our expense. But I didn’t know him. So I’m not going to talk about his death. I’m going to talk about his work, and the moments it mattered in my own life. And apologies if this is incoherent (spoiler: it is).

– I remember digging Scary Monsters out of my parents’ ancient CD drawer, and loading it onto my iPod. I remember going for a run and listening to it for the first time (these may not actually have been the same event, but to me, it’s an album about running in a fundamental sense. Plus I like the image, so). I remember running up a very steep hill near my home town while listening to ‘Up the Hill Backwards’.

– I remember listening to The Best of Bowie [UK Edition] (per the iTunes naming) for the first time. I have long since realised that only a select few of those songs are his actual best.

– I remember being given The Next Day for… oh, it must have been my seventeenth birthday. I remember listening to it, and not really liking it.

– I remember listening to ‘The Laughing Gnome’ in a hospital radio studio, and laughing at the phrase “The London School of Ecognomics”.

– I remember reading Philip Sandifer’s essay on Ziggy Stardust, and thinking ‘I want to write criticism like that’.

– I remember coming back to The Next Day during a particularly brutal essay crisis. It was angry, and harsh, and sad. It was exactly what I needed. Overlong and self-indulgent as it is, it will always have a special place in my heart. And ‘Valentine’s Day’ is a song that, sadly, keeps being relevant.

– I remember going over to the house of a bunch of friends on the night of the 5th of May, 2015, and cooking dinner for two Labour campaigners. I thought I would put on some music to cheer everyone up. I chose The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, because I am an idiot. The first song on that album is ‘Five Years’. You can probably guess what happened next.

– I remember ‘Hang Onto Yourself’ becoming a staple of my essay crisis playlist, along with ‘Safety Dance’, ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’, and ‘Come On Eileen’. Please don’t judge me too harshly.

– I remember getting weirdly obsessed with ‘Song for Bob Dylan’. I would listen to it on loop for days. I don’t know what came over me.

– I remember going through a bit of a rough patch last year. I won’t go into details, but it was a period of a few weeks where I was often lonely and frequently miserable. During this period, I listened to ‘Sound and Vision’ a lot. It’s about three minutes long, and captures that sense of isolation more perfectly than any poem or song I have yet come across. “Drifting into my solitude…” It is also the pop music equivalent of that thing you’d do at school where you’d write an essay about how you couldn’t think of anything to write. “Pale blinds drawn all day, nothing to read, nothing to say…” I listened to it a lot in the groggy early mornings, usually while shaving, clearing away the detritus and getting ready to go out.

– I remember sitting in an office with two of my friends, watching the video for ‘Blackstar’. We all agreed that it was far too long and self-indulgent. But none of us turned it off, either.

– I remember coming across the blog Pushing Ahead of the Dame, and falling in love with a critic all over again.

– I remember livetweeting Blackstar the album. It felt new. It felt natural. The entire album was up, on Bowie’s YouTube channel, for free, the day after it released. More than anyone else in the music industry, Bowie got the internet.

– I remember listening to ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’. I remember thinking it was the perfect album closer. “Seeing more and feeling less/ Saying no but meaning yes/ This is all I ever meant/ That’s the message that I sent”.

– Last night, a friend of mine messaged me having just listened to Hunky Dory for the first time. He told me it felt like a religious experience. I knew exactly what he meant.

We were lucky to have you, David Robert Jones, for as long as we did, and I’m so glad you got to go out like you did. After everything you did, all the strange,  inscrutable, contradictory messages you left us, we can be sure of exactly one thing:

It was all worthwhile, after all.