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How David Bowie Avoided the Cliché of the Aging Rock Star

Bowie managed to resist the cult of youth that later trapped Mick Jagger and others of their generation.

Adam Berry/Stringer/Getty Images

Is there a readier figure of fun in our culture than the aging rock star? The SoulCycle instructor and the urban farmer are more au courant targets. But not so long ago, during the Clinton presidency, before the jokes simply ran out, there was no better butt than the Rolling Stones embarking on yet another reunion tour.

Right before September 11, 2001, and the discursive shifts it entailed, cultural critic John Strausbaugh published a book that revealed perhaps more than it intended to about the politics of this mockery. Rock Till You Drop is a polemic with a simple thesis. “Rock is youth music,” Strausbaugh writes. “It is best played by young people, for young people, in a setting that is specifically exclusionary of their parents and anyone their parents’ age.” Much of what follows are bellicose descriptions cataloging the “horrifically aged bodies” of fellow baby boomers like Eric Clapton (“paunchy and chinless, bearded and burghermeisterly”) and Stevie Nicks (“stuffed like a sausage into some girdle, her pancake makeup thick and hard as china”—perfect fodder, he snickers, for the drag queens who adopted her as an icon). Proudly though not inventively offensive, Strausbaugh uses age to legitimize the disparagement of bodies the world’s most conventional male gaze would prefer not to alight upon.

But Rock Till You Drop has more up its sleeve than casual misogyny and homophobia. Its larger purpose is to skewer the legacy of the 1960s in much the same way that a slew of commentators—from liberals who still claimed the mantle of the left like Todd Gitlin, to hardened neocons like David Horowitz—had been doing since the Reagan administration. “The revolutionaries of 1968 grew up, grew fat, grew complacent, withdrew from the world, and beguiled themselves with their own trivia,” Strausbaugh writes. The revolutionary energies of the ‘60s were shams all along, a truth revealed by the fact that their bearers sold out. This line of reasoning is itself merely a continuation of the smug point Tom Wolfe began making in the ‘60s in his critique of “radical chic.” When radicalism has style, and the critic does not like radicalism, he accuses it of stylishness. When it used to have style, and that style has waned, he accuses it of ugliness.

The aging rock star, for Strausbaugh, turns out to be a cousin of the right’s favorite bogeyman, the tenured radical, who is despised for having the last good job in America while holding onto the rebellious idealism of the boomers’ boomtime youth. When an aging boomer says that rock is youth music, what he means is that resistance to the social order is natural and good when it is cordoned off in his own biographical and historical past—but foul, pathetic, and inauthentic if it attempts to be sustainable.

David Bowie was sustainable. For all his unearthly androgynous beauty, which seemed to place him out of time, he managed to resist the cult of youth that Mick Jagger and company built and were then entrapped by. The cult of youth created an encomium to live fast and die young, and many rock stars succeeded in this. A few—Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison—managed to do so before the ‘60s had fully burned out. Indeed, according to lore, their deaths were the end of the ‘60s. Their youth and the era of youth were coterminous. Their peers who survived had no such luck evading the youth cult’s contradictions. Having failed to cleave their bodies to history, aging rock stars embarrassed everyone who bought into the idea that rock and roll is inextricable from young flesh.

The Stones and the Beatles were only a few years older than Bowie, but their respective fan bases had a different relationship to the politics of authenticity, auguring a more significant generational difference. Bowie’s original die-hard audience, working-class British youth coming of age in the early 1970s, “learned to live with illusion and learn from illusion rather than run away from it,” Simon Critchley writes in his book Bowie. “To inhabit this space is also to live after the revolution, in the disillusion that follows a revolutionary sequence.” Mott the Hoople’s 1972 single “All The Young Dudes,” written by Bowie—My brother’s back home with his Beatles and his Stones/We never got it off on that revolution stuff—was “like Kerouac’s On the Road for a beaten generation who knew they were going absolutely nowhere.”

Bowie is, of course, known above all for his shape-shifting intimacy with illusion. His many personae, in turn, are best known for their fluid relationship to gender and sexuality. But from the start of his career he made clear that aging, the most inexorable way the body changes, is in fact the shifting ground on which all other reinvention takes place. In “Changes,” the closest he got to writing a youth anthem, Bowie starts off like a funkier version of early Bob Dylan, whose mantle he explicitly, teasingly takes up later on 1971’s Hunky Dory. If Dylan could conjure the ‘30s, Bowie could do the ‘60s, in the ironic and yet dead-serious spirit of camp. In full-on voice-of-my-generation mode, he croons—

These children that you spit on

As they try to change their worlds

Are immune to your consultations

They’re quite aware of what they’re going through

But Bowie, or his narrator, also knows that he is not just the agent of changing times but their unwitting object: Time may change me/But I can’t trace time. By the end of the song, he is issuing a gentle memento mori to his own tribe: Look out you rock-n-rollers/Pretty soon now you’re gonna get older.

He got older. He went through a million changes and plenty of them were unpleasant, either from his own reports or—particularly in the ‘80s and ‘90s—according to his fans. But aging remained the avowed ground on which these other changes took place. On Station to Station, his 1976 diary of a bad year, he fantasizes about entering into a time out of time—not an eternal youth, but “golden years.” In the 1983 goth classic The Hunger, perhaps the only soft-core porno ever made about progeria, he plays a vampire who, like the Struldbrugs in Gulliver’s Travels, gets old but cannot die. But if the film tells us that living with age is the stuff of horror, it shows us that this horror can be intensely erotic: He is still harrowingly beautiful as an ancient, a chiaroscuro of antiquity imposed upon ethereal twinkishness. In a 2002 BBC radio interview, he crushes the cult of youth with one quip. “It doesn’t faze me at all, aging,” he tells an interviewer. “It’s the death part that’s really a drag.”

This does not mean that rock, in Bowie’s cosmology, isn’t youth music. It is, but youth in a different sense than we usually imagine. Youth, for Bowie, was something like queerness for José Muñoz (a concept drawn in turn from Ernst Bloch’s notion of utopia): a cosmic futurity, a potentiality on the horizon that we can approach but can’t quite touch. In Bowie’s intergalactic vision, this literally looked like a tide from the future sweeping back toward us, which we can only “make way for,” as he sings in “Oh! You Pretty Things,” allowing our children to be replaced by future people—“the strangers”—who may not even be human.

If asked to name one rock star who has aged gracefully, it would be hard to do better than Patti Smith, a sorceress in full control of her powers. But Bowie’s unique career-spanning counterpoint, of earthly time playing bass to his sci-fi falsetto, laid the foundation for him to age into his own kind of demonic sublime. In his case, late style did not manifest in a career as a stage performer—he stopped touring after 2004—or even, for the most part, as a recording artist. He was a fashion icon ultimately famous for being himself; in Oscar Wilde’s terms, he both wore works of art and was one. According to the cult of authenticity that neighbors the cult of youth, this is nothing to celebrate. But as one of the most flamboyant members of the cohort of artists—hippies and punks and every shade in between—who made a home in New York City in the 1970s and bought a modicum of freedom while it was on sale, Bowie has continued to represent an alternative as we continue to be told there is none.

“Death, particularly for those in Bowie’s generation, is becoming something to control—an event to arrange and manage,” Ann Neumann writes, situating Bowie’s intricately choreographed final days in the context of the boomers’ impending aspiration, via practices like hospice and assisted suicide, to “the good death.” It might be more precise to say that death, for those with the resources to do so, is becoming an event to arrange and manage on one’s own terms, rather than the terms long arranged by the medical-industrial complex.

Against this backdrop, Bowie’s death—its dramatic interplay of extreme privacy and unapologetic publicity—was a searing piece of performance art in itself. For almost 50 years, rock stars have either successfully died young in a bathtub or have failed to do so. Bowie created a new paradigm. In managing creative control over his death he authored a new ending to the story of the rock and roll life course, and thus a new legend about how to live and die in postmodernity.

In the postwar period, Robert Pogue Harrison writes, we entered an “age of juvenescence”—the cult of youth metastasized into an era-defining condition. Ironically, Harrison notes, this is hardly a boon to young people: “[O]ur youth-obsessed society in fact wages war against the youth it presumably worships.” When I read critics like Strausbaugh, what I hear, in the guise of shaming old people, is an astonishingly selfish attempt to bottle up freedom, joy, resistance—youth, in Bowie’s cosmic sense—and keep it in cold storage, in the past, away from actually existing young people.

Greil Marcus tells the story of Catherine Deneuve’s cynical ad campaign, on French television in 1984, for Youth Garde skin cream. “I’ve done a lot of living, and I have nothing to hide,” Deneuve boasted. Her generation, the soixante-huitards who had fought in the ‘60s under the banner of youth, now “represented not a memory of youth but its avant-garde. ... To be young, Deneuve said, one must be old.” It takes all the energy we have to keep youth on the horizon while we’re young, and there’s no reason to believe, historically speaking, that we’ll have another chance. To keep it in sight, I’ll keep listening to Bowie.