post cover

Episodes: On David Bowie


Emily VanDerWerff

Mar 26 2016

4 min read



The death of David Bowie in January hit me very slowly, in waves. I was sad about it at first, but mostly because so many people I knew were sad, too.

See, I never knew Bowie in the way I knew other artists of his generation. When I was a kid, my parents defined him as "weird," and for whatever reason, I didn't break out of that opinion of him, even when I got to high school and college and started devouring the music that had been shut off from me as a child. (We switched churches once when I was about 12, then again when I was about 15, and both times were accompanied by a gradual opening up of cultural windows, a kind of personal glasnost.)

But Bowie never made the leap for me. I guess growing up in a place rigidly defined by gender hierarchies, I found his challenging of same sort of subtly terrifying or something like that. I certainly liked a couple of his songs, but I didn't do the deep dive so many people do when they're teenagers.

I wish I had, though. Over the past few months, I've been doing that deep dive, and I'm increasingly convinced that he was the artist I needed when I was about 17 and struggling to articulate a lot of the things I was thinking and feeling. I've always gravitated toward big, almost theatrical music, and, well...

This, curiously, has made me even more sad about his passing. I guess that's not "curious," since it's easier to mourn someone whose work you're more familiar with. But the effect has been less being sad about Bowie's passing and more being sad about not having gotten to know him when I most needed him.

Back around the time of Bowie's death, my colleague, Caroline Framke, wrote a really beautiful piece about why we mourn artists as much as we do. The conclusion she drew was that we mourn not just the artist, but the versions of ourselves said artist revealed to us. And that's definitely been true for me over time (and even explains why I was so broken up over the death of Peter Jennings). But I don't really know how often people mourn artists who revealed to them a version of themselves they could have been.

Because of my adoption, I've always felt the other versions of who I could have been alongside me, acutely. Had my birth happened a month earlier, or had I been born a girl, or any number of other things, my life would have been completely different. And that's hard, especially for a writer, to overlook.

I suppose the "what might have been" center exists in all of our brains, but the circumstances of my origin have always made it feel supercharged, something that's only grown with time. Combine that with the early stages of what should be a wacky fun mid-life complex in 5-10 years, and you have a me who's obsessed with all the things he didn't do and people he wasn't.

So when I hear "Rebel Rebel" or "Five Years" or even "Lazarus" now, I find myself a little wistful for the me who discovered Bowie in time, who got to see him in concert, who had those songs accompanying all of those important moments. I had pale approximations, things that sort of fit but didn't, and I very much wish I'd had the full article.

Tell me: What's something you discovered too late?


Episodes is published at least three times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

Read more posts like this in your inbox

Subscribe to the newsletter