With Great Big Shoes: David Bowie and the Weird Kids

music

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As with so many things in life, I was a latecomer to David Bowie, and I stumbled across him in a weird way. (But then, if Bowie isn’t here for the strange and the tardy, who is he here for?) It was my junior year of college, and I was up late one night in my dorm room watching an episode of Venture Bros.—an always-rich vein of pop-culture references to learn and love—that kicked off with this scene:

Because I was apparently raised inside of an airless cultural gas bubble, I’d somehow never heard of this Major Tom before. So off I went to the Internet and found “Space Oddity.” I was instantly like, Sad, dramatic British man alone in space? Sign me the fuck up. I still can’t think of a more succinct description of what helplessness feels like than: “Planet Earth is blue / And there’s nothing I can do.”

Look. I’ve always felt like that strange kid who was one step behind, one electron removed, one jump to the side from the rest of the human race. In elementary school, I spent two years of my life convinced I came from Pluto and had somehow accidentally ended up here—and I hadn’t even heard of The Man Who Fell to Earth yet. I couldn’t see a way to fit in, so instead I leapt out into my own self-created atmosphere; I felt like the world didn’t and wouldn’t ever get me, so I responded by getting weirder.

In our time, David Bowie was the one who paved the way for the weird kids—the freaks who compensated for their left-of-centerness by saying screw it and racing right out to the edge. He was a working-class kid with a permanently fucked left eyeball who reinvented himself, and then repeated the feat again and again and again. Bowie’s life was a work of art: Both Frankenstein and the Monster, he created himself over and over, unafraid to tear down his latest identity and strip-mine it for parts that he’d use in the next model. The Man Who Sold the World gave way to Ziggy Stardust gave way to the Thin White Duke, and on and on until the end of his days.

“It was no longer possible to take seriously the history of things as stage-managed by the media and the educational system,” Bowie wrote of the birth of glam rock in a 2001 op-ed for The Guardian. “Everything we knew was wrong. Burroughs, being the John the Baptist of postmodernism, had proselytised over this point for years. Free at last—or, if you like, at sea without a paddle—we were giving ourselves permission to reinvent culture the way we wanted it: with great big shoes.”

Everyone’s got their own Bowie, and 1970s androgynous alien Bowie—with his glam-kabuki makeup and the thousand-yard stare of a god who has fallen from wonders—was always mine. Ziggy Stardust, who on “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” wailed, “You’re not alone! / Just turn on with me / And you’re not alone!”, who made it cool to stick out like a sore, bedazzled thumb.

All of which is to say, I hadn’t listened much to his more recent output. It felt too synthy, too icy for me. I wanted Bowie’s expressive voice and his spacey guitars unmediated. The “Blackstar” video gave me chills when it came out last month, but a listen to the full album when it dropped last week left me cold.

Then last night around 2am, as I sat up by the glow of my laptop working (or procrastinating) on a freelance article, a red banner appeared at the bottom of The Guardian‘s website: David Bowie Dead at 69. I shouted “What?!” out loud to my empty room. It couldn’t be true. Bowie couldn’t die. Bowie was an immortal alien Goblin King cat-person vampire rock god from Mars, and he was eternal. Bowie had just opened a musical Off Broadway. Bowie had a new album out. Hadn’t I just watched Bowie gyrating in a creepy blindfold last week?

When it finally sunk in, I turned off the lights, popped in my earbuds, and played “Starman” at maximum blast. “Look out your window, I can see his li-i-ight / If we can sparkle, he may land toni-i-ight.”

David Bowie’s life was a work of art, so it should be no surprise that his death was a work of art, too. He knew he had terminal cancer, chose not to bother the world with the fact, and quietly set about crafting his last gift to the world, his final puzzle box for us to tinker with after he’d gone.

A few days ago, he released the video for “Lazarus,” which we weren’t to know was his farewell—his self-penned epitaph. Over moaning guitars and weeping saxophones, he convulses in a hospital bed, two stones over his blindfolded eyes, payment for the ferryman to cross the river Acheron. “This way or no way / You know, I’ll be free / Just like that bluebird / Now ain’t that just like me,” he sings, and finally he retreats backwards into a wardrobe, eyes fixed outward, closing the door behind him. He may have left the world before he wanted to, but he did it on his own terms. Creating himself anew, one last time.

Like I said, David Bowie was here for the weird kids. It was only today that I realized, looking at the outpouring of common grief that streamed across the Internet all night and all day, that there were a lot more weird kids out there than I thought. The world is full of weird kids—maybe, after all, nothing but—and Bowie in his many guises spoke to all of us.

“How clear it now is, how undeniable,” Tilda Swinton said in a speech about her friend/magical fairy doppelgänger in 2013, “That the freak becomes the great unifier. The alien is the best company, after all, for so many more than the few.”

So for everything you were and everything you left behind, Bowie: Thank you, from one weird kid to another. I hope your spaceship knows which way to go (o-oh).

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Halloween 2011. A frightening amount of people thought I was Harry Potter.

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Jenna’s faves of 2014: MOVIES

best of 2014

This was a pretty awesome year for film, both in terms of big noisy blockbusters and little quiet indies. Bonus points to Tilda Swinton and Chris Pratt, who were in two of these movies each.

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1. Only Lovers Left Alive
I knew going in that Jim Jarmusch + vampires was an excellent formula, but I didn’t expect just how weird and lovely this tone poem of a movie would be. Not much happens in the story, and that’s kind of what’s amazing about it: As eternal aesthetes, Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston use their immortality to appreciate the world around them, especially its great art and forgotten geniuses. (And I think we can all agree that Tilda does Being a Vampire better than anyone else across all of time and space.)

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2. Guardians of the Galaxy
I love a good superhero movie, but most of them suffer from an overabundance of ponderous seriousness. (The world is ending! Broodbroodbrood.) But James Gunn’s take on the genre is the opposite—funny, warm-hearted, and really fucking fun. And for all the crazy space pyrotechnics, the scale feels real and human; chalk it up to the can-do-no-wrong Chris Pratt and his scuffed little walkman, and Vin Diesel (as Groot) doing his most adorable voice work since The Iron Giant.

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3. Boyhood
Richard Linklater almost singlehandedly invented slow cinema (think slow food, but with celluloid) with the Before Sunset trilogy, but he takes it to new heights here. With its staggering timespan, Boyhood is like nothing else ever made. It’s incredibly moving in its portrayal of all the profoundly mundane and mundanely profound moments that make up a human life.

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4. Birdman
Talk about virtuoso. Long cuts and endless tracking shots hypnotize me, and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s stunner of a character study is one seemingly endless shot. I’ve been watching Mark Cousins’s documentary series The Story of Film lately, and he talks a lot about how one of film’s most magic abilities is to expand or contract time. Birdman turns time into subjective putty, and it’s incredible. Also incredible: the ensemble cast, acting the ever-loving shit out of this sucker. I will say I hated the stupid subplot about the eeeevvvvillll theater critic on a deeply personal level, but pretty much everything else was gold.

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5. Song of the Sea
Earlier this year, my friends Lissa and Julia introduced me to Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey’s The Secret of Kellsa gorgeously rendered piece of Irish animation about Celtic folklore and pleasures of the printed word. Moore’s followup is this even prettier, even more haunting film. Like a Miyazaki movie, every shot of Song of the Sea looks like a painting, and its characters are very human, quirky kids operating in a giant world of myth. And did I mention it’s about selkies?

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6. The Grand Budapest Hotel
I’m a total sucker for Wes Anderson’s oeuvre, even its weakest links. Sometimes, even the shallow pleasures of his movies are enough—the object fetishization, the precision of his camera angles, the excellent soundtracks. But there’s nothing shallow about The Grand Budapest Hotel, which, beyond being absolutely gorgeous, is a minutely realized character study of a man in love with his job.

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7. Obvious Child
May all the lady gods of ladies bless Jenny Slate for making this movie, which is maybe the first work of fiction I’ve ever seen that doesn’t treat abortion like a dreadful and traumatic taboo. And even feminist implications aside, Obvious Child is a really funny, smartly observed romantic comedy, operating on a small scale. Also, it reminded me how much I love the titular Paul Simon song. Just try not to jump around to those drums.

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8. The Lego Movie
As a kid who grew up making my spaceman Legos and underwater-diver Legos fight, make up, fall in love, and suffer bouts of amnesia, this movie spoke to me on a molecular level. Beyond the nostalgia (and the fact that the jokes are a mile a minute and hilarious), I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more perfect or more fun dramatization of the creative process. Emmet’s “The prophecy is made up, but it’s also true” speech to President Business encapsulates my personal belief system in a way that kind of amazes me.

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9. The One I Love
This is one of those movies where the less you know going into it, the more fun you’ll have. But I will just say—I’m a big fan of stories that deal with identity, doppelgängers, and confronting yourself in a way that surprises yourself. This movie is the first feature for both its director and its writer (Charlie McDowell and Justin Lader), and they come out swinging. Of course, it helps a ton when you’ve got Elizabeth Moss in your corner. (Is Mad Men back yet…?)

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10. Veronica Mars
Yes, I donated to the Kickstarter. Yes, I have a Mars Investigations sticker on my laptop. Yes, I love everything Rob Thomas does ever. This movie met my expectations pretty much exactly, scratching that persistent itch left behind by the open-ended 2007 series finale. It’s a testament to how much everyone who worked on the TV show loved it that they returned in force for the movie, which blends all the stuff I loved about the series: whip-clever dialogue, satisfying mystery, class-war undertones. Would I recommend it to someone who hasn’t seen the show? No, dummy. Why haven’t you watched the show yet? Geez.