David Bowie and Our Obsession with the Glorious Dead


On January 10, the world lost an icon. David Bowie’s death, resulting from his unpublicised liver cancer, robbed the world of a true musical pioneer. Whether he was embarking on a Space Oddity in the late ‘60s, or challenging the music listening public’s perception of gender roles as Ziggy Stardust in the ‘70s, or even wearing a leopard print playsuit for Dancing in the Street with Mick Jagger, Bowie attracted attention and held a dear spot in the hearts of many. And yet, in his absence it seems as though we’re seeing more of Bowie than we have for years. At the time of writing, there are five David Bowie albums in the UK album charts top ten, and a total of twelve in the top forty – a chart record. For some reason, the death of the artist seems to have reinvigorated the success of his work on a massive scale, with people rushing to buy not only the unnerving and experimental Blackstar, his final album released two days before his demise, but albums released forty years ago.

Yet this tremendous posthumous success isn’t just a cultural oddity surrounding one talented individual. Bowie is just one in a long line of musicians whose output gains a sudden growth in recognition after their deaths. Only one artist had achieved the feat of having twelve records in the UK top forty album charts at one time before this week- Elvis Presley in 1977, following his death. Similarly, Micheal Jackson is the only other artist to have had five albums in the top ten and this came about after his death in 2009. There are a multitude of cases of this kind of interest in a musician immediately after their death with sales of music by John Lennon, Freddie Mercury, and Lemmy booming in the immediate aftermath of their deaths. 

Why do we feel the need to do this? Where does the compulsive need to celebrate the dead come from? Naturally, media coverage of the death of a musician may bring their music to the minds of people who had been fans in the past and inspire them to reinvest in their interest. On the other hand, why would this lead to people buying records released in the ‘70s? If they don’t already own these albums then there’s no real clear reason as to why they would clamour for them after the artist has passed away. It’s as if people buy mementos to commemorate the life and works of musicians that they evidently didn’t care about enough to spend money on in their life time. Clearly, the mass music buying public frequently suffers from not knowing (or particularly caring) what they have ‘til it’s gone.

It’s difficult to tell just what exactly the implications of this kind of phenomenon are. Obviously good music is there to be appreciated regardless of age and as such a reoccurrence of interest in dead artists means that their music may come to be better known to a later generation and that their legacy will live on after them. If art is appreciated long after its creator’s death then this emphasises the quality of the art and the longevity of its importance. But on the other hand, where does the celebration of the dead leave the living? Have we got more time for musicians made into legends by their death than those continuing to shape and influence culture? Judging by coverage of Michael Jackson prior to his death, especially during his child abuse trials, and the coverage after, we look back at the personalities of artists with rose tinted glasses as well as their work. In one sedative overdose, ‘Wacko Jacko’ evolved back into the King of Pop as the tabloids battled to squeeze every last drop out of his last day and sell it to the grief junkies. Similarly, people are much happier to remember John Lennon for starting a revolution from his bed than recalling his public mockery of the disabled and the fact that he used to beat his first wife. Even David Bowie was no stranger to criticism in his lifetime, raising a fascist salute in 1975 and being detained at border control for transporting Nazi memorabilia.

Given the success and brilliance of Bowie, his contemporaries and those that inspired him it is little surprise that people continue to value their art and celebrate their legacies after their death. Nevertheless it seems ridiculous to spend your money and claim affection towards a musician on the back of a whirlwind of hype and media attention in the aftermath of their death. Moreover, it’s unfair and immoral to airbrush history for the sake of preserving our glorious dead. If you don’t care for or about a musician, don’t pretend to when they inevitably die – certainly continue to celebrate their music, but at least appreciate them whilst they’re around.