I of course knew who David Bowie was when I was twenty. He was a musician. He was married to Iman (who was in my favorite Star Trek movie). He was Jareth in that movie Labyrinth that a girl I had a crush on in middle school loved (but that I, honestly, never really got into beyond a burgeoning celeb-crush on Jennifer Connelly). He had a brief cameo in Zoolander. So I pulled the song briefly clipped in his scene.
"Let's Dance," I said.
"No," this guy said, matter-of-factly.
I was flummoxed, briefly. I thought more. He sang that great song with Queen.
"'Under Pressure' is a great tune..." I posited.
"Let it die already," he responded.
I thought more. Of course, the one I absolutely loved because of my life-long desire to travel the stars (see that I, at twenty, still had and still do have at 33, a "favorite" Star Trek film).
"'Ground Control to Major Tom,'" I said.
"That's not even what it's called. You don't like Bowie. You don't even know Bowie."
I tried my last grasp.
"'Suffragette City,'" I proudly proclaimed.
"You only know that because The Get Up Kids covered it," he responded.
"You only like the hits."
I conceded. I had come up against a cultural goaltender, and he deflected all of my shots.
"You call yourself a music fan," he added. I let him have it.
This kind of cooler-than-thou attitude, this hipster behavior, this cultural goaltending; I'm guilty of it. Recently.
I feel bad, now, today of all days. I feel bad because after I got shut down for "only liking the hits," I didn't dig deeper. It would be five years or so before I delved into Ziggy Stardust. Longer before I felt safe telling people that I liked "Space Oddity" and "Under Pressure." I didn't go back because I thought I had missed it. Well, I had, hadn't I?
I'm thirty three years old. When I was born, Bowie had been around. He had been an innovator. He had invented and reinvented himself already before I came on the scene. He would do it again before I became culturally aware enough to listen to the music my parents were listening to, to understand and develop from that base my own tastes, to let friends and MTV and the cultural juggernaut of sort-of-but-not-really-legal payola radio to present what they had, and for me to either accept or reject it. When I came into my cultural awareness, David Bowie was cool. I was not.
But now, having delved into not just the music but the person behind it, I know that David Bowie was not cool. Not always. What he did was just make the music he wanted to make. He didn't care about being cool. You discover, growing up uncool, that it's those on the fringes that define what will become cool. That's what Bowie did, through his music and his attitude. And he never stopped.
I spoke earlier about listening to the music my parents listened to. I don't want to paint a picture that just because they weren't listening to Bowie, they were doing me a disservice. There's too much culture out there, not everybody can catch every single innovator and know what will happen. No, my parents didn't have any David Bowie records. But you know what they did have? Queen. Paul Simon. The Moody Blues. A record of live performances from the Apollo, covering years. Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies. The Beatles. Louis Prima. Elton John. Buddy Rich. What I'm trying to say is that my musical education wasn't empty, it wasn't lacking, it wasn't incomplete. It's impossible to be a completist. Not everybody has the cool uncle with the whole Dylan catalog, or the older sister who copied all of her Jethro Tull albums onto cassette. We do the best with what we have. With luck, we find somebody with similar taste. We share the things the other doesn't know. We act not as goaltenders, not even as gate keepers, but as guides to each other. For every person out there who loves David Bowie, there's somebody who will, but they just haven't heard enough yet. Maybe they just know the hits. There's no need to punish somebody for only knowing what has been played on Top 40 Radio. Let the hits be a gateway to the deeper cuts. If somebody you know only knows one or two songs they've heard here and there, lend them a copy of the full album. Let them explore. Let them get to know the artist in their own way.
And let them know; it's okay to like the hits. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that.