The state of freaks, oddities and wackos in today’s pop culture
David Bowie often sang of visiting worlds outside of earth. He sang of being stuck in space, of pondering the possibility of life on other planets, of playing alongside his buddies: the spiders from Mars. And it made sense too; it was kind of like he was from another world. He was androgynous and bisexual and dressed like a there was no established notion of costume. He changed personas seemingly every five years: a schizophrenic bohemian, a fictional pop fantasy, an upscale fascist, a depressed wanderer, an angry hard-rocker, an elder statesmen. All the while as flamboyant and unpredictable as ever. He was weird.
He was really, really weird. He wasn’t unorthodox or quirky or wacky, he legitimately had a few screws loose. He didn’t subscribe to being counterculture; he disregarded culture, he established his own culture. It was as if Bowie wasn’t even a real person, just some vessel through which all the other weirdos could explore.
When Bowie died at the beginning of this year, it took a real, personal toll on me. Even alongside family or other celebrities that had had an impact on me, Bowie’s death was tough because he was the pinnacle of weird. He was a guy who had ideas—like many of us—of personifying creativity and paying no mind to convention. This was a guy who wore a dress around town, a guy who lived a decade off of cocaine, milk, and chili peppers. The world was not a place that told David Bowie what to do; it was merely the setting of one of his many lives where he could experience and experiment.
There weren’t many, maybe any, that were able—through cocaine, sleep deprivation, 1970s Los Angeles nightlife, whatever—to channel raw weirdness into art like Bowie. Prince came close. He may not have been as purely nonsensical as Bowie, but Prince sure liked to spit in the face of the apparent natural order of things. Like Bowie, Prince was successful in evoking authentic sex and passion while (perhaps because) he slammed through the constrictions of traditional gender concepts. He wasn’t manly and he wasn’t sexy; he was sex itself. His name was a symbol, beyond words, and to those who couldn’t wrap their heads around that, his name was simply a reference to what his name had been. Prince was commercially successful, yet remained an enigma. He was a pop culture icon, but still incredibly hard to define; a caricature of himself, but never one which settled into comfortable dependability.
Now he’s dead too, and as hard as it is to definitively say this, I can’t help but think that true weirdness in entertainment has died along with him.
After the death of these two titans, I heard quite a few modern day equivalents, who either had their way paved by Bowie and Prince, or acted as comparisons. Lady Gaga, Kanye West, Beyoncé—people who are so influential that they can single-handedly alter the status quo. I can’t disagree. It appears that these, among a few others, are doing stuff every year which redefines normal in the entertainment sphere. Just listen to Kanye talk about how he discards with tradition and changes the game based on the smallest caprices; it’s like the only thing he ever talks about.
But none of these people are the same. They’re just not weird enough. And through no fault of their own—there simply isn’t an open door for a Bowie or a Prince in today’s world. When Lady Gaga was wearing meat dresses and developing a male alter ego, it looked like a page straight out of Bowie’s book. But Lady Gaga wasn’t doing this on whimsy or to act as a vehicle through which the odd of the world can live vicariously. She was doing it precisely because it was weird, because it was the unnatural thing to do. It wasn’t who she was, it only what she did.
We’ve branded weird, made it into an element of entertainment rather than a doctrine to live by. Instead of taking in all of the world—its contradictions and beauties and realities—and spitting it all back out in a way which disregards rule and custom, modern weirdness is more a tint through which we view the world in the same way we always did. We all love somebody who lives dangerously and against expectation, but a true freak is nowhere to be found in modern pop culture.
Thinking about all of this I can’t help but be reminded of David Bowie’s music. On “Life on Mars?” questioning whether the true oddities and absurdities of the world even knew that, from the outside, they looked like the universe’s greatest vaudeville, then wondering how America managed to corrupt the innocence of Mickey Mouse and sell the purity of Lennon. It’s an inevitable thing, the exploitation and impurifying of true, raw ideals. It’s the difference between a weirdo who doesn’t know he’s “the best-selling show” and a weirdo “on sale again.”
Early 2016 has seen goodbyes to David Bowie and Prince. I can only hope they’ve now found worlds that allow them to flourish in all their true weirdness.
By Gabe Tugendstein