Put on your red shoes and dance the blues.
David Bowie, Let’s Dance (1983)
David Bowie (1947-2016) found cool in every iteration. His sense of style changed repeatedly over the years, but whatever was in style at the time he either helped create or helped make famous. I used to think I was drawn to his coolness, yet in his coolness he showed a vulnerability that spoke to me even more deeply than my teenage desire to be as cool as he.
I think he would have understood that. Bowie wrote and performed songs that had a surface of cool and depths of uncertainty, cynicism, pain.
Space Oddity spoke of living a life of adventure that is really about a man who finds he’s lost control of life, and one wonders if it’s autobiographical. Bowie lived that life of glamour, a life fans would envy. But for those who have achieved fame and fortune, this might be just how it feels sometimes, to be floating along and then completely lose control:
I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in the most peculiar way …
I’m floating around my tin can
Far above the Moon
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do
Or consider the cynicism found in a life of Fame in the spotlight:
Fame, (fame) what you like is in the limo
Fame, (fame) what you get is no tomorrow
Fame, (fame) what you need you have to borrow
Or the pain in realizing that to someone like China Girl, a life of white privilege is not only unattainable but can destroy her life and everything she knows about life;
You shouldn’t mess with me
I’ll ruin everything you are
I’ll give you television
I’ll give you eyes of blue
I’ll give you men who want to rule the world
David Bowie was a man who, as the opening quote puts it, knew how to get people to dance the blues even when they didn’t know it.
But the truest representation of Bowie’s vulnerability is in his short film Jazzin’ for Blue Jean:
He plays two parts: awkward working class bloke Vic and the pop star Screamin’ Lord Byron who is adored by fans wherever he goes. The contrast is startling, but they each portray Bowie. And it’s a clever film, full of cringe-worthy efforts by Vic to get the girl, and laughable moments between Screamin’ and his entourage. The big twist isn’t at the end of the concert scene but rather as the camera pulls back to show what the whole film was about.
The vulnerability in Bowie’s performance of the two roles is what comes through most clearly. There is an awkward swagger to hapless Vic, an awkwardness I know firsthand. Bowie’s ability to portray it so convincingly either means he is a superb actor – and I tend to think he was, based on performances like the lead in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence – or it means he was playing a role he knew from experience – and I tend to think this likely is true as well, if those song lyrics above are any indication.
The vulnerability made Bowie accessible to his fans, whether they recognize it or not.
Vulnerable and in Christ
We are all vulnerable,
What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. (James 4:14.)
yet this vulnerability can draw us to God:
I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted within me. …
But you, Lord, do not be far from me.
You are my strength; come quickly to help me.
(Psalm 22:14, 19.)
It is this vulnerability that Jesus recognized when he invited us to be with him:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:28-29.)
David Bowie’s music helped me feel the vulnerability that I sometimes try to hide, try to stuff down beneath my accomplishments, beneath the praise I might receive from others. If for nothing else, I appreciate Bowie’s mastery of his art in showing me this because it helps me understand my need for Christ.
And after all, if someone as cool as Bowie could be vulnerable why can’t I?
He was cool, wasn’t he.