THE BEGINNING

The reaction to the icon’s death felt almost incomparable in scale – from former collaborators to politicians, music fans to high street chains.

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In 1962 David Jones appeared on the BBC Tonight show. Surrounded by a group of collaborators with wide, knowing smiles, Jones canvased for young men’s right to have long hair. A significant proportion of the previous generation of men had been subject to military discipline. Jones’ hair rejected the past through fashion. Ten years later as David Bowie, he used not only his hair but glam rock, polori slang, a skirt and rouge when pushing queer identity into public conversation. Homosexuality had been decriminalised five years earlier but homosexuals had been told ‘not to flaunt.’ He flaunted and everyone watched.

Many in Bowie’s generation equated rock music, and the arts, with potential personal and collective transformations. During his life he rifled through personas and artistic endeavours with good grace and humour. His music remained entirely listenable. Provocative, singular and ambivalent to ‘authenticity,’ Bowie was a product and protagonist in social and cultural changes. The reaction to his death is a testament to his wider significance but also how people felt a genuine affinity with him. Despite Bowie’s death being worthy of a reaction, Monday was at times strange and mawkish. It illuminated the strange media-laden world that Bowie had envisioned, mischievously teased and manipulated.

I woke up on Monday to the words ‘David Bowie’s died’ and mumbled ‘oh, no.’ The radio downstairs was playing ‘Sound and Vision’ while television’s breakfast news relegated atrocities in Syria and nuclear brinksmanship for in-depth obituaries. Bowie had played the queen but I doubt that he would have envisioned becoming Princess Diana. The presenters canonised Bowie as ‘an icon,’ talking heads rehearsed platitudes, such authorities as Jools Holland talked about his generosity, good nature and innovative approaches to music-making. Montages rolled across the screen to paper-thin life histories and froze to a portrait – David Bowie, 1947-2016 – just in time for Homes Under The Hammer.

Newspapers’ websites were instantly filled with banner headlines, large close-up portraits and columns reporting Bowie’s death. A tweet of commiseration from David Cameron – which made me gag on a mixture of scrambled egg, orange juice and coffee – lingered in minute-by-minute reporting. All major party leaders followed, then the Vatican and the Church of Scientology, next Argos, a company that manufactures tractor engines and Sunderland Football Club. AFC Wimbledon centre forward Adebayo ‘The Beast’ Akinfenwa called him ‘a straight boss’ and complimented the film Labyrinth. NASA reminded us that there was an asteroid named after Bowie between Mars and Jupiter. ‘RIP David Bowie’ loomed over London, illuminated on the BT Tower.

Of course, there were heartfelt reactions from Bowie’s close friends and family, but it seemed that most public personalities and institutions felt the need to comment. This coverage is testament to Bowie’s success as an artist but said more about the schmaltzy hive mentality that greets celebrity deaths. The nadir was perhaps Sky Sports News using Bowie’s death to publicise its daily dose of transfer gossip, horse racing news and unreconstructed masculinity.

Aside the morning’s PR-exercises and lazy hack treatment, a more grassroots social media reaction grew. Bowie’s death provoked a response matched only by the glee that followed Thatcher’s death for volume and intensity. I sang ‘Let’s Dance’ in the shower changing the line “tremble like a flower” to “tremble in the shower,” then browsed. What struck me, following the sincerely insincere mainstream media response, was how Bowie had reached such a diversity of people, in different ways and through different means. Some concentrated on Bowie’s music and others his image and fashion choices. They drew from the full breadth of Bowie’s albums and incarnations. People shared an impossible seeming array of images of Bowie-themed fancy dress and wrote about him like he had been a kindly uncle ready to dispense contemplative advice and encouragement. He was frequently perceived as an example that showed that it was fine to be different. The number of people willing to share how Bowie himself, a song, lyric or interview had changed the way that they understood something about the world or themselves was startling. The reaction gave clues to Bowie’s actual influence, the meaning behind the trite press line.

I ventured out to canvass the opinions of friends. In the street it was just a normal grey day. Of the many people I passed, only one was noticeably commemorating Bowie. A tall redheaded woman in a green coat wore lightning-strike earrings and looked forlorn. I expected a little more – maybe the sound of songs from stereos pushed onto window ledges and turned up to their maximum volume or notices outside cafés, shops and tube stations, but no. It was a surreal counterpoint to the online expressions of loss and grief that I had been immersed in all morning.

At my friend’s house, I watched him deliberate about which Bowie song he should listen to first in the post-Bowie era. His monologue ended and we sat in his kitchen in silence. His housemate arrived, a reasonable and even-tempered person, and looked as if a close family member had died when she spoke. She could not face listening to any of Bowie’s music and recounted how Blackstar, an album that she had listened to with a group of friends last Friday, now made so much sense. We went to the pub to meet a larger group of friends and acquaintances who began, in time honoured fashion, by making dark jokes that I will omit out of general decency. As the bar staff cued Bowie’s greatest hits, the conversation turned to favourite songs, his prescience and how, above all, he seemed to be an interesting and genuinely nice person. Across the city in Brixton, the fear of missing out generation, social media and culture of celebrity death worship had scraped together a gathering of the credulous to warble a tuneless ‘Starman’ for the world’s media. In the pub it seemed like every table hosted a discussion about Bowie, his music and his cultural legacy. Such was Bowie’s influence on people, the common bond he gave friends, I am sure that this scene was mirrored across the world.

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