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Where the fuck did Monday go? asks Bowie on “Girl Loves Me”, the fifth track from his final album Blackstar (2016). An eerie line for someone who died on a Sunday night. David Bowie passed away on January 10, 2016, only two days after the release of his final album Blackstar; the release date also marking his 69th birthday.
Close sources say that Bowie meant for Blackstar to be a swansong and parting gift for his fans. His terminal liver cancer, known only to close confidants, was only publicly announced after his passing. His death was immediately followed by extensive media scrutiny of Blackstar. Even a shallow examination of the lyrics shows that he did very little to hide it: I know something is very wrong / The pulse returns to the prodigal son.
Prior to 2016, we didn’t usually associate David Bowie with dark subject matters. He created “Let’s Dance” and drew a lightning bolt on his face, and we danced to “Modern Love”, and we laughed at his dance moves in “Dancing in the Street”. However, in an interview in 2002, Bowie told The Associated Press that he had worked with the same subject matter his entire career: “isolation, abandonment, fear, and anxiety.” The Independent described him as “the outsider’s outsider” who fought against the then-mainstream macho rock ‘n’ roll. He wasn’t being quirky for the sake of it. He takes a subject that is often framed in discomfort and disparity and not only confront it, but embrace and play with it. If anyone was going to turn their own death into a performance piece, it was going to be David Bowie.
Bowie’s off-Broadway musical Lazarus (2015) received significantly less attention than Blackstar, but covers similar themes of despair, anxiety, and death. Four prominent tracks from Lazarus’ soundtrack would later feature in his posthumous EP, No Plan. The thematic approach found in No Plan foundational for any great album. David Bowie performs his fear of the afterlife from the afterlife. He saw his death coming, and he responded in remarkable fashion.
The opening track “Lazarus”, which also features on Blackstar, sets the the tone of No Plan with its now oft-quoted opening lines: Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen. Its imagery is both poetic, metaphorical, and hauntingly literal; it embodies the sense of despair that characterises Blackstar. “No Plan” takes the mood set by “Lazarus”, and paints the experience of an out-of-body experience, made through the lyrics and its intrinsic sound. The synthesisers in the background are faint and poignant. Bowie’s vocals resemble howling more than singing. Hell, even the guitars seem to crescendo to the heavens.
The diversity of sounds in No Plan as a whole is haunting and satisfying. “When I Met You” showcases a classic rock sound, but its startling opening bars belong in dark, modern albums like Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool (2016) and Death Grips’ The Money Store (2012). “Killing a Little Time” uses classic instrumentation to produce a trendy, alternative, and minor sound, reminiscent of The Arctic Monkeys’ AM (2013). No Plan provides a wide variety of sounds while maintaining a cohesive theme of death and despair, making its title misleading to say the least.
It is fitting that the social relevance of Blackstar and No Plan would be emphasised throughout 2016 — a year known for wide media coverage of celebrity deaths. Bowie’s death seemed to be the first of an array of them. Alan Rickman died just days after. Then came Prince. Wilder. Ali. Cohen. Michael. Fisher.
You could make the case that a celebrity never dies. Actor Hugo Weaving, donning a 4chan mask, once said that “ideas are bulletproof.” The public image of a celebrity will most certainly outlive them — whether they are accurate representations or not. After all, Bowie himself sings, in “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”, Stars are never sleeping / Dead ones and the living (The Next Day, 2013).
Artist and professional snake-interrupter Kanye West seems to be one of the few public personalities aware of their own mortality. A close examination of his lyrics reveals a fascination for, and fear of, death. In “Power”, Kanye’s clock is tickin’ as he just count[s] the hours. In “I’ll Fly Away”, Kanye’s choir soulfully sings: One glad morning, when this life is over / I’ll fly away. After receiving the Grammy for Best Rap Album in 2005, Kanye said that one of the biggest lessons he had learned was that “nothing in life is promised except death.”
The tension between Ye’s ego and his Christian beliefs provides for an interesting take on mortality. He has always made his way into the limelight, and it could be argued that Kanye’s way of dealing with death has been to garner a highly controversial public persona; to use stardom as a way to immortalise every aspect of himself: I’m a star, how could I not shine? His death-anxiety and corresponding goal of wanting to live forever is perhaps best enshrined in one of his most controversial quips: “You don’t think that I would be one of the characters of today’s modern Bible?”
His controversial remarks have truly made waves in the mainstream. In his 11-minute VMAs sermon, Kanye passionately shouted at the audience that he would “die for the art”, and that his fellow artists only needed to worry about how they felt at that present moment, before announcing his run for presidency in 2020. Many people can be in the limelight for fifteen minutes, but staying in it is a different story altogether. Kanye is a lot smarter than the public gives him credit for. If you interpret Kanye’s performances as a very public conversation with himself about how he is going to evade death, the “w a v y” comments on the internet start to make some sense. Coincidentally, Kanye’s approach is summed up in the track aptly titled “Waves” (The Life of Pablo, 2016): Waves don’t die… even when somebody go away / The feelings just don’t go away.
No Plan provides a compelling counter to West’s approach. Where Ye uses music to fight against his own mortality, Bowie embraced death, and turned it into a performance piece. Blackstar, Lazarus, and No Plan are not only a music icon’s final releases, but they are about his own death. In any case, these works are so cohesive, and No Plan is a truly tasteful posthumous release. It is, perhaps in true Bowie fashion, simultaneously ahead of its time and nostalgic. This is perhaps why No Plan is so impressive — its tracks are retrospective in that they invoke his older materials, contemporary in that they are influenced by his fellow modern peers, and future-facing in that he is speaking about his imminent passing. 2016 produced some great musical works, but Blackstar is a true standout and No Plan is its worthy by-product. Not bad for a supposed old-timer whose career spanned nearly 50 years.
As mythologist Joseph Campbell puts it, the archetypical hero who overcomes a difficult force will return “with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” Bowie has directly faced death with No Plan, and immortalised his stature as an artist.
However, a morbid side effect of the death of a public figure is a huge boost in sales in relation to their works. Michael Jackson made $1 billion since passing in 2009. Amy Winehouse sold 1.7 million records in the year after her death. Even Vincent van Gogh was brought to tears when he found out about his posthumous success on Doctor Who. And despite being nominated consistently throughout the years, Bowie’s only Grammy award, before his passing, was in 1984 for his music video, “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean”. Four more have since been posthumously added to his collection , all of which were awarded to Blackstar. The death of superstars will result in great success — a tragic fact of life that Bowie and Kanye both understood very well.
And so, here we are. David Bowie’s death was melancholic, tragic, and untimely. What was it all for? Well, Bowie once said that he was most proud of the fact that he had “affected the vocabulary of pop music.” At the same time, you can also hear the influences of Death Grips, Swans, and Kendrick Lamar in Blackstar and No Plan. His trailblazing approach to death in this EP was ultimately a product of his own offspring — including Kanye West.
Bowie’s last pieces of work thus do two things: immortalise his unique approach to musical performances, and pave a path for the new generation to come. No Plan is a culmination of David Bowie’s works — past, present, and even future — all wrapped up in a nice little package from the afterlife. By embracing his fate, Bowie completed the age-old tale of death and resurrection. With Blackstar and No Plan, he has mastered both life and death.