David Bowie’s Countercultural Legacy

David Bowie died Jan. 10 after an 18-month struggle with cancer. He was just 69.

Bowie was one of the era’s most influential singers and songwriters, and he won fans as an actor, too. When I think of him, I flash back to my junior high and high school days: Listening to “Modern Love” on the radio, watching Labyrinth. But perhaps the most vivid memory I have of him was a quick glance of him on television.

“I just LOVE David Bowie,” the girl standing beside me said during a little party we were at, staring intently at the screen. She was kind of cute and I wanted to be polite, so I dutifully turned to the screen, too, nodding in a vaguely encouraging way. And there he was—the latter-stage Thin White Duke, decked out in a baby-blue suit hanging off his gaunt frame like it was a wire hanger. He was pale. Angular. Compellingly ugly, I thought at the time. He was no typical pinup idol that girls typically said they “loved.” Had he tried to join Duran Duran—the band that the girls went gaga for back in the day—the band might’ve rejected him as unfit for the MTV age. Or they would’ve, if they hadn’t known that Bowie was, in his own odd way, made for MTV.

And in that moment, I suddenly had hope that I might not be predestined for a life of social loserhood. After all, if this pasty, rail-thin guy could be the epitome of cool, even someone like me might have a shot at respectability.

Such was the charm of Bowie, a man who spent his whole life singing about outcasts and alienation and making those outcasts and aliens seem oh-so cool. In his Ziggy Stardust and Halloween Jack personas, he played with gender fluidity in ways truly scandalous at the time. When he morphed into the Thin White Duke that I grew up with, he brought a sense of old-school elegance to the party in an age of hair metal and bombast. He could even make a spandex-clad Goblin King in Labyrinth look enviably suave.

The man recorded some memorable songs, sure, and continued to make it up to the very end. He released his 25th album, Blackstar—an experimental, jazzy rumination on mortality, I’m told—just days before his death.

But it was perhaps his constantly shifting persona where we see his influence even more. For 20 years, Bowie wasn’t a singer as much as he played a singer—be it Ziggy or the Duke or even himself. His visage shifted, chameleonlike. He wasn’t just a pop star: He was a performance artist. And as such, he set the template for Madonna, Marilyn Manson and Lady Gaga and myriad artists who followed him, step by prancing step.

But his voice—that unmistakable, un-imitative voice—never changed. And there was a certain consistency to what he sang about, too.

“My entire career, I’ve only really worked with the same subject matter,” he said to AP in 2002. “The trousers may change, but the actual words and subjects I’ve always chosen to write with are things to do with isolation, abandonment, fear and anxiety—all of the high points of one’s life.”

Bowie’s influence is a mixed bag, of course. His early androgynous performances and often hedonistic vibe perhaps set the cultural stage for the societal moment we’re in now. He’s always been, in some respects, the Goblin King—a representative for groups everywhere that felt marginalized or shunned or different. The LGBTQ movement found an icon in Bowie’s glam gender-bending.

But the word “marginalized” has been largely co-opted, it described how I felt back when I first heard Bowie. I didn’t drink. I didn’t do drugs. I wasn’t particularly good at sports. I was openly Christian. In my public school at the time, that made me an oddity—out of step with many of my peers. Bowie, then bedecked in pleated trousers and waistcoats, felt like a PBS pop star—a guy who walked out of a 1920s period drama and dropped a handful of insanely hooky hits. I didn’t know anything about his lifestyle or his Ziggy Stardust past. But in that moment, just his vibe told me old-fashioned could be cool, too. And given that I was pretty old-fashioned myself, that was encouraging.

Bowie was not a Christian, as far as I know. He once told Beliefnet that he was “almost an atheist.” Yet in that same interview he said this: “All clichés are true. The years really do speed by. Life really is as short as they tell you it is. And there really is a God—so do I buy that one? If all the other clichés are true. … H—, don’t pose me that one.”

“Questioning my spiritual life has always been germane to what I was writing,” he said. “Always.” And we hear ruminations about faith—both positive and negative—again and again in his music. His very last single, accompanied with a haunting video of Bowie writhing in a hospital bed, is titled “Lazarus,” and it begins with the line, “Look up here, I’m in heaven.”

But the song that has danced in the back of my brain the last few days is one from my childhood: “Under Pressure,” which he recorded with Queen. In the end, Bowie sings this:

‘Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word

And love dares you to care for

The people on the edge of the night

There’s something biblical in that. “If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that?” Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:46. “Even corrupt tax collectors do that much.” We’re told to love the unlovable, to love our enemies, to love those with whom we disagree.

David Bowie was always an odd mix: Out of step with the culture and yet somehow creating it—a creature both of the moment and out of time. And while we should not condone everything he was or hold him up as a role model, maybe his passing can remind us that we, too, are to live in the world but not be of it; to proudly and boldly ignore the world’s cadence and follow another, better one; to be countercultural in the best sense of the word.

Perhaps God created us all to be oddities.

Who wrote this?

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007 and loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. In addition, Paul has also written several books, with his newest—Burning Bush 2.0—recently published by Abingdon Press. When Paul’s not reviewing movies, he hikes with his wife, Wendy, runs marathons with his grown kids, Colin and Emily, and beats back unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

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