5 things I learned from the life and music of David Bowie

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(Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The whole world seems to be grieving the loss of David Bowie by sharing stories of what his music meant to them.

I thought I’d do something similar here and talk about five things I’ve learned from the Chameleon of Rock.

I’ll state the obvious first…

I’m not an iconic, fashionable, charismatic genius — so these are lessons that don’t always come easy to me.

But they’re worth remembering and leaning into when you need the motivation to move forward, artistically or otherwise.

1. You can’t please everybody, so do what you want

There are always going to be people who don’t get, like, or connect with your music (or you). One of my all-time favorite albums is Bowie’s Hunky Dory, but I’ve had debates with musician friends who cannot stand to hear a single note of it.

Who’s right? No one! It doesn’t matter. Trust that your music will find its true audience, and don’t worry about everybody else. I don’t picture Bowie losing much sleep over the folks who might be turned off by an album about a messianic rock star who communicates with aliens, do you?

2. Fidelity be damned!

Yes, many of Bowie’s albums sound fantastic from a fidelity standpoint. Others, not so much. One of my friends who hates Hunky Dory told me that besides the songs, he can’t stand the record because it sounds terrible, tinny, thin. To which I said, “Yep. And…?”

For him, the sound quality was a deal breaker. For me, I realized that — sometimes — a good song and a good performance can shine through. And if you’re lucky, imperfections in the recording can even enhance the song.

Now I’m not suggesting you TRY to make your recordings sound like crap. Just that fidelity isn’t the only consideration when you’re trying to decide whether a track (or album) is worth keeping.

3. No virtuosity needed

When I was in high school, I was under some pressure to decide what kind of musical path I’d follow. Scales, and modes, and speed, and sweeps, and playing over changes, and chord substitutions, and all the other things that “serious” players need to know? Or dumb dumb strummy strummy sing sing?

I thought hard about the kind of music that moved me most, and I thought of David Bowie, David Byrne, and John Lennon. Though they’re all competent players, none of them are really known for showing off their chops. In fact, none of them even have “great” voices, if you were to judge them based on the standards of shows like American Idol. Instead, they gave pride of place to their songs, thoughts, and emotions, not virtuosity or perfection.

I loved pop music most of all, and you don’t need to be a “respectable” player to make great pop music. You just need to have an idea, and let it have its moment. My 17-year-old self thanks David Bowie for this realization.

Though I do have to say, some of those chord substitutions have come in handy from time to time.

4. Don’t chase trends

I say it a lot on this blog, but if you’re trying to sound like someone else who’s popular right now, it’s going to seem stale by the time the record gets released.

David Bowie didn’t chase trends. Or rather, when he did, he put such a unique spin on them that he BECAME the trend. This was the real genius of his many transformations. He synthesized styles, sounds, fashions, art concepts, and more — in such a way that he always stayed incomparable.

Make music that inspires you, and trust that at least some of your audience will find inspiration there too.

5. It’s okay to be the alien

Anyone who has survived adolescence knows what it’s like to feel like an alien, a freak, an outsider. Whether you’re emotionally open or keep things bottled up, there’s always real risk and pain in revealing your true self and passions to others.

Bowie, or at least his andro personas, pushed alienation to the point where it became a strength. (Hey look, ma, the freaks are having more fun than everyone else!)

Now I haven’t worn makeup or a costume on stage in a long time, but I think the lesson is clear: try to be who you want to be. (Or maybe the Bowie lesson is: “try to appear to be who you want the world to see.”)

It’s not easy, for sure, but listen to what Devin Faraci says about the importance of this quality in Bowie’s art:

I was weird. I was a freak. I was a fag. But I was never alone. That, in the end, is what art’s true function is – to remind us that we’re not alone. To help us understand that someone else has felt like this. That someone else has hurt like this. That someone else is just as confused, that someone else is just as lost. That someone else knows what it is to be an alien.

Maybe your art can build a similar bridge to a listener who feels alone.

Bonus lesson: let yourself be changed

There are a lot of forces at work trying to keep you exactly who, where, and what you are. It could be friends, family, fans, peers, co-workers, whatever. It could be finances, nostalgia, tribalism, expectations, or simple inertia.

But we all have to make big changes once in a while — in our life and in our music. If you’re feeling resistance when that time comes, just think of Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, The Goblin King, or this guy.

There’s a starman waiting in the sky.

Goodbye, Bowie. And thanks!

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  • PhilipClark

    Great stuff, Chris!

    • Thanks. Thanks for reading. On a related topic, I’m on my second day of listening to Bowie’s new Blackstar album on repeat.

      @ChrisRobley

  • Budget Guitarist

    Very good points. There aren’t too many people who like every Bowie album, because Bowie was constantly changing his music. He was a true artist, a man to be admired.