3 Ways to Bring David Bowie’s Spirit to Your Social Change Work
By now, most everyone knows David Bowie died last Sunday at the age of 69.
When I was a kid, my mom listened to Bowie anytime she cleaned the house. In fact, he’s the only music I remember her ever playing during my childhood. After she took me to see him perform on his last tour, I was convinced I’d become the coolest kid in my eighth-grade class. I’d seen Bowie live. From then on, I drowned out every school bus ride with Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.
In adulthood, I’ve still found solace in Bowie. My favorite procrastination activity in college was scouring the depths of YouTube for obscure Bowie interviews. Today, I can say with certainty that the best dance parties I’ve ever been to have been Bowie parties. And now, just two days after the world celebrated his birthday and the release of his new album, he’s gone.
In music, fashion, and creativity, Bowie is a legend. He pushed boundaries, challenged norms, and helped shape popular culture—and, in turn, our society—to be more inclusive and open-minded.
Looking for a way to process your grief and let the badass sprit of Bowie live on? YES! Senior Editor James Trimarco suggests three ways your movement can channel his spirit. —Liz Pleasant
1. Never stop transforming.
“I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.”
In 1972, Bowie took on the identity of Ziggy Stardust, a gender-queer rock star from outer space. People were shocked by the shifting sexual identity of the hero. That might hard to fathom from 2016’s more sexually liberated vantage point, but he opened the door to new possibilities, especially for young people. Here’s a sample of his sound and style from that time:
With three hit singles, Ziggy Stardust brought success and made Bowie a star. But—like Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, and other artists who’ve remained relevant into their 60s and beyond—Bowie kept reinventing his style. By 1974, Bowie had transformed again. This time, into “Halloween Jack,” and then, in 1976, into the “Thin White Duke.” Even in the months before his death, Bowie came up with a new, startling identity as the mysterious masked shaman in “Blackstar.”
Bowie’s character transformations kept him growing. Such transformation is something we see in some of the most vital social movements today. Occupy Wall Street started as a series of encampments, but many organizers later transformed themselves, Bowie-like, into offshoot groups like Strike Debt, which used totally different tactics. Similarly, Black Lives Matter originated as a social media protest against racist police brutality, but more recently found a new stride in emphasizing racial justice for the upcoming presidential race.
2. Unexpected collaborators can lead to genius.
Occasionally, Bowie picked the obvious person to share the stage with. Who can forget him singing “Dancing in the Street” with Mick Jagger?
But the partnerships that shaped Bowie’s music and career the most came from farther afield.
In 1974, Bowie picked Puerto Rican guitarist Carlos Alomar—at that time best known for playing with James Brown’s funk band—as a co-writer and touring guitarist. Alomar’s staccato strum formed the structure of many Bowie classics: “Fame,” for example, was built around one of his riffs. Alomar continued to collaborate with Bowie into the early 2000s and played on more Bowie recordings than any other guitarist.
In the 1990s, Bowie’s pick of industrial-music composer and singer Trent Reznor shifted Bowie into a new electronic phase. The classic “I’m Afraid of Americans” is probably the best known of his collaborations with Reznor:
Movements for social change can follow this example, too. Look outside the obvious partnerships, and hunt down the groups that share your goals yet bring a completely different experience to the table.
3. Let it come from inside.
Watching Bowie’s transformations over time might give someone the idea that he was trying to impress his audience, put on a show. But that’s not the way he talked about it.
“All my big mistakes are when I try to second-guess or please an audience,” he told The Word magazine in 2003. “My work is always stronger when I get very selfish about it.”
No movement can please everyone either. Sometimes, movements need to get selfish too, even if they’ll be met by backlash from others who care. For example, a big part of the progressive movement objected when protestors affiliated with #BlackLivesMatter interrupted presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in Seattle.
Whatever you think about that move, it came from the heart and had an impact. Lesson: Don’t second guess and don’t live to please.
James Trimarco is a former senior editor at YES!
Liz Pleasant is a former managing editor at YES!