David Bowie, the Language of the Tribe, Weirdness, and so on

There have been a couple pieces written about David Bowie and what he meant to the “weird kids.” Here are some vaguely continuous thoughts I’ve had over the last 24 hours as a former “weird kid.”

1. Bowie was the ur-weird kid transformed into something larger than life. Ziggy Stardust was the theater nerd as messiah, the sci-fi geek as rock star, the choir dork as diva.

2. One of Bowie’s qualities that I think made weird kids latch onto him was a sincere lack of belief in authenticity. This was seemingly instinctual rather than intellectual, felt rather than theorized. He didn’t believe that “authenticity” was a real thing, and that wasn’t just some postmodern line.

3. Authenticity is a problem for weird kids. You aren’t part of any clique or group. The experience of being a weird kid is one of constantly trying to fit into some group and knowing full well you don’t belong there. And they, the group members who do belong in the group, know it too. And the more you try to pretend you do belong there, the worse it gets. You speak nervously and try to adopt the language of the tribe, but it doesn’t take. There’s something wrong with the way you’re dressed, with the way you talk — your self-consciousness gives away the fact that you are trying to fit in instead of just fitting in.

4. When you try to fit in and fail, you are exposed as inauthentic, as a faker, as someone trying to deceive their way into friendship, human contact, something . You aren’t really a jock — you’re not good at sports, don’t know anything about them. You aren’t a skater — you don’t even own a skateboard. You aren’t a stoner — you’re too scared to smoke weed! You insist that you belong, but this is a desperate lie, and a transparent one. Telling it feels really bad, but not because you’re being dishonest. It’s because you’d rather lie than face the social wasteland, which is where everyone knows you truly belong. And that is pathetic.

5. I remember being 12 or 13 and hearing an interview with Bowie where he used the word “dilettante” to refer to himself. He sounded ironic, I think he was laughing or smiling when he said it. I had to go look it up, and after I did, I remember feeling bad for him, because he had been found out too. They knew he wasn’t authentic, that he didn’t belong. He was just a dabbler. He was cast out. I listened to his music obsessively all through middle school and high school.

6. It took me longer than it should have to understand that Bowie was laughing about the word “dilettante” itself. It implies lack of commitment, dabbling, and so on. It’s the sort of word specialists throw in the faces of curious generalists when they feel like their enclaves are being invaded. To be made to feel like a dilettante in a room full of specialists is to be reminded of your inauthenticity.

7. But Bowie seemed to feel no such pressure to “commit” to one thing or another, to one style or another. He pursued an idea until he had exhausted it. He seemed to feel no compulsion to continue to lug the exhausted idea around. He shed it once it was complete. He wasn’t the idea; the idea wasn’t him.

8. If you watch the BBC documentary Cracked Actor, which follows Bowie after the end of his Ziggy Stardust phase, you see him struggling with this process. He is frighteningly thin, reedy-voiced, as unsure of himself in interviews as he is confident on stage.

9. By the time he entered his Thin White Duke phase, he seems to have gotten over these nerves.

10. If David Bowie was a dabbler, a dilettante, an outsider forever intruding into mediums, genres, and styles that were not properly “his,” this inauthenticity was liberating rather than fraudulent. His ability to leave behind a form or statement once it ceased to be alive for him in a state of continuous curiosity about what it was he was even doing.

11. If you’re a weird kid, you exhaust yourself trying to figure out how “to be authentic.” You’re exhausted because you can’t figure out authenticity — you are authentic or you aren’t. You belong or you don’t. So you spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about it. You wear yourself out, make yourself anxious. You internalize your own position as an outsider and become an enigma to yourself.

12. But David Bowie was an unworried outsider. He didn’t want to be anything he wasn’t, he just wanted to know what it would be like. This sense of relaxed acceptance, of curiosity rather than anxiety, was what he gave to the weird kids.



Disconnected Post Script: Almost none of the remembrances of Bowie published yesterday or today mention what a tremendous singer he was. Watch footage of any performance from the 70s and stand in awe.

1 Comment

  1. Mark,
    I was moved by your observations & analysis. In my experience, the “weird” kids become the most interesting adults.

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