Everyone is paying tribute to David Bowie’s musical feats, as well they should. Seldom, if ever, has one man made such a massive, beautiful dent on pop music and pop consciousness. A gender-bending, genre-hopping genius, deserving of all the accolades coming his way today.
But I want to pay tribute to another of Bowie’s feats, which strikes me as quite extraordinary: the fact that he kept his cancer private, or ‘secret’, as the press insists, for 18 months. This, more than anything, has blown me away today. In this era of too much information, when over-sharing is virtually mandatory, Bowie’s decision to suffer away from the limelight, among those closest to him, appears almost as a Herculean achievement.
The reason the world is so shocked by Bowie’s death is not simply because we have lost one of pop’s great innovators — inventors, in fact — meaning his death feels as significant as Elvis Presley’s in 1977. It is also because no one saw this coming.
Yes, with the hindsight provided by his demise, we can now see that his last album, Blackstar, released just last week, was a kind of gracious and moving bowing-out from life. With a song called ‘Lazarus’, and mournful lyrics such as ‘I know something is very wrong’, this is clearly a man who knows his end his near. Listening to the album today is a jolting experience.
But few picked up on this tone to the album over the past week, because Bowie revealed nothing about his illness. He never spoke of it; his loved ones never spoke of it. He became ill and died utterly in private, among those he knew. No media, no fans, no strangers were invited to share his pain or engage in mawkish pre-emptive mourning.
Fifty years ago, this would have been perfectly unexceptional, unworthy of comment. Back then, people must have been taken aback by the deaths of famous or influential people all the time, since sickness was rarely press-released or discussed in-depth in magazine interviews.
But today, to be sick in private, to die in private, seems almost revolutionary. They say Bowie bucked trends (and in the process invented new ones) — well, he’s just bucked one of the most powerful and nauseating trends of our era: the victim-therapeutic complex which demands that we keep nothing private, that we advertise our failures and fragile mortality to a watching, sadness-hungry world.
The pressure to share is immense. The ‘Sad Lives’ sections of bookshops heave under the weight of cancer memoirs and abuse histories. You can’t open a magazine without being confronted by a celeb who wants you to know in graphic detail about their mental ups-and-downs, their private griefs, their diseased bodies. From Angelina Jolie’s mastectomy op-ed in the New York Times to the trend for tweeting one’s own drawn-out death, more and more of us feel compelled to erase the line between our private lives and public lives and to make a spectacle of our every trouble.
Some people justify all this in Oprahite lingo, claiming it helps individuals ease their mental burden or raise awareness about some disease. We have forgotten what is lost when everything becomes public: the intense world of real, un-performed emotions that is the private sphere. If everything we do is watched, then nothing we do is real — really real, un-acted, unscripted, and instead just felt, among those who know us and love us.
In resisting this omnipresent pressure to confess to physical or mental weakness, Bowie did something heroic. He reminded us of the sanctity of private life. On the last track on Blackstar, he sings: ‘I can’t give everything away.’ There. That’s it. We must all keep something for ourselves, far from the eyes of supposed experts and therapists and audiences who want to know everything about us. If Bowie’s life was well-lived, all music and adventure, then his death was well-died.