David Bowie means a lot to me. I may not be as big a Bowie fan as some, but even as a more casual fan (I only own a couple of albums and a Best Of), his music is woven throughout my life. It inspires feelings of familiarity, comfort, delight, and motivation, and I always enjoy looking back fondly at the memories it conjures up. Here are ten great Bowie songs that had an impact on me at different times in my life.
When David Bowie died five years ago, I had been thinking about getting my hair cut short. I had realised I was non-binary as soon as I found out that was a thing, in my late 20s, but at 30 I don’t think I had come out to anyone yet (maybe a couple of people at most). Growing up as a girl, with long hair, the idea of getting it cut short felt like a drastic and scary step, but it was one that I was trying to psyche myself up to take. Right when I was trying to decide whether to do it, David Bowie, the beloved bastion of androgyny and gender weirdness, devastatingly passed away.
Inspired by him, and in honour of him, I thought to myself, “Well, I have to do it now.” I think I got it cut the next day, which led to a huge amount of gender euphoria, feeling more like myself, and taking a lot more selfies ever since. “Rebel Rebel” was always one of my favourite Bowie songs, especially the line, “You’ve got your mother in a whirl / She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl.” Now I associate it with that moment, and it reminds me of how Bowie helped me get there.
When I was about 8 years old, on the last day of school before the summer holidays, my teacher announced that we would watch a movie. The movie was Labyrinth, and as soon as I saw it, it instantly took over the number one spot as my favourite film. I was obsessed, and I kept talking about it all summer. I don’t remember if I knew who David Bowie was at the time, but I remember being in awe of his charisma when I saw him on screen.
Like many folks my age (and, let’s be honest, probably every age), I had a confusing crush on Jareth the Goblin King, and I probably would have let him kidnap my brother if I had one. The songs in the movie were incredible too, of course. “Magic Dance” remains one of my favourite Bowie songs, and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of listening to it.
I was 13 the year we finally got cable TV, and I often stayed up late on weekends and during the holidays, watching MTV. I was introduced to a lot of new music that way, both current and classic, and I couldn’t get enough. When the video for “Thursday’s Child,” Bowie’s latest single, started to be played, I was mesmerised by it. I loved the song’s melancholy beauty, the video, and Bowie himself, with his longer-than-usual dark brown hair. I went out and bought Hours, a pretty underrated album. I feel like the Hours-era stuff is an unusual introduction to Bowie’s music—but then, isn’t the magic of Bowie that everyone gets hooked by different songs from different eras at different times? It’s a great album that I still enjoy listening to, and it reminds me of teenage years filled with discovery and inspiration.
Not long afterwards, I bought The Best of David Bowie 1969–74. I revelled in the joyful riffs of “Ziggy Stardust,” as well as the dreamy, evocative tones of “Drive-In Saturday.” I bonded with a boy at my weekly drama club over our shared appreciation of David Bowie, and on some level, I’ll always associate all those ‘70s Bowie hits with him. He was sweet, and when we saw each other it was a sanctuary from the pressures of fitting in at school, and from the idea of liking what we were supposed to like as teens in the late ‘90s. At that stage, liking music from 20 years earlier marked you as a weirdo, but we got to be weird together for a few hours every Saturday.
“Panic in Detroit”
In my second year of university, one of my best friends from home moved up to Scotland, where I’d been miserable in my first year. We were living close enough to see each other every week, but far enough apart that it wasn’t worth going back and forth constantly, so we’d stay with each other for half of every week. He’d recently gotten into David Bowie, and he was always excited to share his obsessions with me. One rare weekend, I remember that I went to stay with him, rather than him coming to hang out with me and my flatmates.
There wasn’t much to do where he lived, there was nowhere interesting to go, and there was no one else to hang out with, but we made the most of it and had a great time. He decided he wanted to turn his flat into a makeshift restaurant, so he decorated a table and cooked a meal. We ate, stayed up talking, and he played the album, Aladdin Sane, for me. I loved “Panic in Detroit,” and it still reminds me of those days, and the bond we had back then.
“Cat People (Putting Out Fire)”
I was working at a cinema in 2009 when Inglourious Basterds came out. Our staff meetings were always on Sunday mornings, and afterwards, a bunch of us would go to the pub for lunch, then head into one of the VIP screens to watch a free movie before our shifts started. It was on one of those days that I saw Inglourious Basterds with my coworkers. The thing I remember most about it is sitting in that VIP screen when “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” by David Bowie came on, and being utterly awestruck by this song I’d never heard before, and how well it worked in the film. Using a modern(ish) song in a period film is always an interesting choice, and what a song!
I was also binge-watching The Office (US) for the first time around then, and soon after seeing Inglourious Basterds, I watched what would become my favourite Office episode, “Café Disco,” which also prominently features “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” and its epic ‘80s chords. Soon after that, I bought Let’s Dance, and “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” became even more strongly associated with that time in my life, and with that job. I was 24, and it was the first job I had that I actually liked, and the first place I worked where I really bonded with my coworkers. I had a great time working there, and a lot of us had a ton in common—including a childhood love of Labyrinth, and our crushes on David Bowie.
“Time Will Crawl (MM Remix)”
When I was 25, I moved from Sunderland, England to Los Angeles, California, on my own. For the next two years I lived with a flatmate who I just didn’t click with. He was perfectly nice, but my social anxiety had me hiding in my room most of the time. It also took over a year for me to find a job. In the meantime, I went to see the local Rocky Horror Picture Show shadow cast every week, where I started getting to know people, and I eventually joined the cast.
One of those days that I was hiding in my room, I decided to make a playlist of lesser-known David Bowie songs—I scoured Spotify to discover some tracks from his ‘90s and ‘00s albums and some remixes and shoved them together. My favourite discovery on that playlist was “Time Will Crawl (MM Remix),” but the whole thing is actually pretty great, and I still listen to it.
Despite being from a period when I was spending most of my time alone, those songs tend to remind me of the people I was getting to know at Rocky, many of whom were big Bowie fans, and the life I was beginning to build. Rocky was my lifeline during those first couple of years in LA, and eventually, it led to me meeting some of my closest friends, getting a job I loved, moving into a new apartment (where I lived with one of my best friends for seven years and didn’t hide in my room), getting pet rats, and more.
“Speed of Life”
Once I was more settled in LA, I started dating someone who loved Bowie, and was a big fan of music in general. On one of our early dates, we watched The Perks of Being a Wallflower, in which the characters discover Bowie’s classic song “Heroes.” The song, and the characters’ excitement over it, seemed to fit with the excitement of those early stages of dating and getting to know someone. I have fond memories of hanging out at his place, a little later in the relationship, when he put on Bowie’s album Low. It was an album I’d never heard before, and he was right when he said it was underrated. I love those moments of connection when you can share an album, TV show, or movie with someone, and Low will probably always remind me of that, particularly its catchy opening track, “Speed of Life.”
I remember the first time I heard the song “Blackstar.” My aforementioned boyfriend had already heard it and raved about it, and we were in the car with some of his friends, driving home from some club in LA, when it came on. It wasn’t quite like anything I’d heard before. I watched the night sky and the lights of LA as they passed by the window, and they seemed to mix perfectly with the sounds I was hearing. The song somehow reminded me that I was alive in the centre of all this beauty.
Of course, Bowie died not long after that. I remember seeing a meme at some point about his death being the start of the world falling apart—all of our heroes dying, Brexit, Trump, and now the pandemic—and sometimes it really does feel like that was the case. Like Bowie was somehow holding us all together, and without him we’re falling to pieces. 2016 marked the start of a personal downward spiral for me too, during which I quit my Rocky cast, broke up with my boyfriend, was diagnosed with depression, quit my job, stopped the writing classes I was taking and gave up on my dream of writing for TV. Right after that, I decided to rebel against my various mental illnesses by spontaneously travelling to New Zealand on my own for three weeks.
I flew via Hawaii, and on the plane from LA to Honolulu, I finally listened to the album Blackstar for the first time (it was one of the choices offered on the in-flight entertainment). The plane’s regular lights were dimmed, and blue lights lit up just as I started listening to the album. It all seemed very futuristic, as did the whole vibe of that airline (Hawaiian?), and Blackstar. I thought about how we really are living in the future, how incredible humanity’s achievements are, and how lucky I was, as the plane took off and Bowie’s final album echoed in my ears.
David Bowie’s music has fostered so many connections, inspired so many people, and brought so much sheer joy into the world. It continues to do so five years after his death, and it will continue to do so for a long time to come. These days I get to discuss favourite Bowie tracks with my fellow 25YL writers, share what he means to me with the wonderful community built around this site, and make more Bowie playlists to keep me sane during lockdown.
I hope that his music can help you in getting through these difficult times too. What are your own favourite Bowie memories? Let me know in the comments.