David Bowie and the permission to be different, and more

Since David Bowie died, everywhere on social media, in print, on the news, in conversation, one message predominates: He made it okay to be different.  Citing this song or that album or video, or for the lucky ones, that concert, people remember the time when he did it for them. In fact, he invited us not just to be different from the norm, from the socially-dictated roles we grew up against, which would have been enough. But he called us to recognize the vast differences within ourselves.

He didn’t have to be just the one thing, different, he could be whoever he found himself on any given day, on any given spectrum.

But it was more than that, he invited us to be different from the self we already knew, to inhabit all our aspects. He could not only be male-ish and female-ish, he could be rock star and fashionista (on steroids, so to speak). He could be earthling and space explorer. He could be video artist and visual artist, he could be Ziggy Stardust and the guy who sang a Christmas song alongside Bing Crosby (giving me new respect for the latter).

And he did it in real time – and invited us to be present in our time. I watched the moon landing with newly-married friends in the living room of their shiny new apartment. I knew we were up there on the moon. Nice. But my mind was distracted by wondering what it was like to be married, whether they liked having a Toast-R-Oven, how it felt to have a set of dishes.

His saw a bigger picture. His mind was blown. He saw the subsequent pictures of Earth, our first view of ourselves from afar, and saw how that changed everything. There we were, little specks, but all on the same big beautiful whirling ball. There was something in that about our inescapable connections with each other, about the wisdom of caring for the planet and maybe even each other.

I didn’t see this myself. It took the exhibit last year at the Museum of Contemporary Art to focus my attention on how exactly he was different from the rest of us in this. Vision, artistry, and the willingness to bring them to life.

He gave us space to explore both our inner worlds and the outer. And now we can see that he never stopped. He just released a new album. He co-wrote and wrote the music for a recently-opened off-Broadway play called Lazarus. On his last birthday the other day, he released a related video that seems to announce his upcoming death: “Look up here, I’m in Heaven…”

We may not have his prodigious talent, but we can still accept what he left us, not just permission to be different from everyone else, but permission to discover more in ourselves.


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