By some terrible freak of timing, my wife and I were watching Amy—the biopic of the poignantly condensed arrival and departure of Amy Winehouse—Sunday night, while another cultural tragedy was in the works. I went to bed troubled by thoughts of the many songs we would never get to hear by a tremendously talented vocalist who flamed out too early. On the road to mainstream fame, Winehouse placed her jazz inclinations in the service of a pop machine; the strain is palpable, as her subdued melisma shoulders through the ends of her lyrical breaks. It makes one wonder—had she been able to cope with the trappings of celebrity—if she would have found a way to return to her small-room approach to song.
And then Monday morning came news of David Bowie’s death; it was now doubly impossible to leave the house, even though a clear sky beckoned over new snow. I wanted nothing except to mark the passing of a remarkable artist, and so I tuned into all of the tribute gifs and selected epigrams. I have to admit, though: I was moved, certainly as shocked as everyone else by the unanticipated loss, but not despondent. Bowie’s long career had allowed him to invent and reinvent himself many times over, from bewildered astronaut to hyper-sane alien, empathetic outcast, futuristic lover, goblin king. His dedication to a storyline, combined with a mastery of spectacle, meant that his art crossed genres and established further lines of communication among fashion, dance, music, literature, cinema and theater.
And before Bowie could become tired of a persona—long before his audience would allow—he retired it. Winehouse’s arch beehive and archly slurred pronunciations hinted at future transformations, if only she had been allowed the time to initiate them. Given the gift of endurance, Bowie wrung the sponge of identity as few others have, and his successful experiments with personae questioned power dynamics, perceptions of beauty, notions of artificiality and authenticity, and made us think post-nationally. All this happened alongside the trampling over of musical boundaries that seems to be an understated given in Bowie’s recordings. A similar restlessness moves like a powerful current underneath the cross-genre experiments in Winehouse’s few dozen recordings. The example of these two artistic lives should encourage all of us in the arts to seize the possibilities of continual reinvention. It’s a new year. Live, write, what-have-you, in a new way. We’re only borrowing this stardust.