I am old enough to remember David Bowie from his Ziggy Stardust days but was never much of a fan. Before his death, I couldn’t have named a single one of his songs. I, therefore, was surprised and fascinated by the outpouring of emotion that surrounded Bowie’s death. Jeffrey Blehar opines on NRO, “The world of popular music—indeed, the world of art writ large—is indescribably poorer for his departure.” The rock and pop music critic, Jim Fusilli, writes in the Wall Street Journal, “At this moment, it seems inconceivable that there will be no next phase from David Bowie.” Really? Perhaps some music journalists and diehard fans find it unimaginable, but I think most people long ago forgot about David Bowie. Since I in no way fancy myself a music critic, I will take at face value the assertions that Bowie was a one-of-a-kind artistic genius. But the loss of his talent does not explain why the attention he is receiving in death is way out of proportion to his influence and popularity in life. Why the David Bowie hagiography?
The obvious answer would be to say he helped to make androgyny fashionable. He was gender bending long before such behavior was widely celebrated. In one of many articles praising him for being a man ahead his time, essayist Sally Kohn explains that he was “the world’s first transgender ally—before we had words like ‘transgender’ or even ‘ally’ in our vernacular.” The online version of the music magazine Fader puts it this way, “One of the coolest things David Bowie showed the world was that sexual attraction and identity is fluid.” The Fader article quotes Bowie as saying, “When I was 14, sex suddenly became all-important to me. It didn’t really matter who or what it was with, as long as it was a sexual experience.” He admits he spent most of his 20s “just throwing myself wholeheartedly into life and every avenue and seeing what happened. Taking drugs; being totally and completely and irresponsibly promiscuous.”
All of this is familiar territory. The idolization of the rocker lifestyle is nothing new, though my children assure me, “that is no longer a thing.” Members of my generation are prone to engage in silly rock ‘n’ roll nostalgia. Yet more is at work here than a longing for the days of youthful irresponsibility. The media is portraying Bowie as a mainstream saint—one whose life and death are worthy of emulation. The Huffington Post ran articles entitled, “What Would David Bowie Do?” and “David Bowie—Our Hero.” In a piece that I first thought was a joke, Morgan Shanahan of BuzzFeed.com advises parents on “16 Ways to Teach Your Kids About David Bowie (And the World).” BuzzFeed may not be a serious journalistic enterprise, but it has its finger on the pulse of society and is the primary news source of many young adults. Shanahan treats them to profundities such as, “Teach them how he was never anything less than his authentic self;” “Show them there are endless ways to reinvent yourself while staying true to who you are;” “Help them see there’s beauty in being different, the way he helped so many of us;” and “Show them the way he saw the world. Teach them to be superhuman.”
How is it that a man who was a drug addict, was extremely promiscuous, and flagrantly flouted all sexual boundaries is being held up as an example for our children to emulate? Have we entered a period of complete cultural nihilism? Not exactly. We Americans have never been comfortable residing in a Nietzschean universe, embracing the immoral and meaningless as a means to superhuman superiority. We prefer to sentimentalize the profane and render it meaningful, especially that which was once considered perverse. Bowie perfectly satisfies this impulse. And so Shanahan from BuzzFeed encourages parents to “Instill in [their children] his rebel spirit with a core of love.” Tribute after tribute to Bowie speaks of his forward thinking about black artists, his humble nature, his generosity towards his fans, his dignity and courage in death, and, most glowingly, about his love for his supermodel wife. We do love a good love story. Iman, in a tweet about her husband, even says, “The struggle is real, but so is God.”
As Shanahan’s homage to Bowie demonstrates, it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate the sacred from the profane in our society. This is because the liberal, cultural elite no longer has any boundaries to push, just an agenda to promote—an amalgamation of sexual fluidity, cultural diversity, and new age spirituality topped off with a sprinkle of kindness and romance. Whether or not the independent-minded Bowie would have approved, he has been marshaled into being a hero for the cause and, as a result, has become more dangerous in death than he ever was in life. To recognize and glorify bad behavior is one thing; to suggest such behavior is some sort of path to goodness is quite another. Contra Shanahan, I believe we must teach our children the difference between the sacred and profane, not that the sacred somehow lies in the profane. A core of love does not lie in obedience to one’s authentic self as defined by the prevailing progressive orthodoxy but in obedience to a Truth far greater than oneself.
Jennifer Ferrara is a writer living in Birchrunville, PA.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.