Shallow Not Stupid

David Bowie was always a reflection of his times, but the mirror he used looked into the future, giving us what we didn’t yet know we wanted. Clever, but not too clever. Now Bowie’s back, reflected as the grandfather of rock in a new spaceship, in the best-selling exhibition “David Bowie Is” at London’s V&A Museum. Apparently 70,000 tickets were sold in advance of opening.

In 1973, David Bowie walked into our lives and out of our dreams singing Starman on Top of the Pops, one of those iconic memories that’s equally memorable to people who didn’t witness it. It’s easy to imagine the young Kate Moss locking herself in the bathroom with scarlet hair dye, having just seen the future — except she wasn’t born yet.

Still, Kate’s never looked better than when photographed as a lady David in French Vogue last year. And John Lydon was never cooler than when he had Bowie-red hair and took on the moniker of Johnny Rotten. Is the Bowie Juice Bar and pile of oranges at the entrance to the show an homage to Ziggy Stardust? Should it be a bunch of carrots? A good haircut can change your life and Bowie’s never looked back since becoming a phallic carrot top, even though he’s since returned to his unnatural blond.

The oddly pale and almost pastel Starman onesie isn’t quite able, in real life, to live up to its vibrant myth. But there it is, trapped in a glass display case, the costume that launched a billion bisexual fantasies. Bowie was always more than just a pop star. The first asexual supermodel is an artist whose appeal lies somewhere between scaring your mother and seducing your brother.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live, punctuating eternity with obsession and fantasy. David Bowie, like all the best actors, is good at creating a character. “I wanted to be free…from David Bowie or the Thin White Duke or whoever I was at the time,” Bowie said on a mid-80s talk show, with a throaty laugh reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich, whom he starred with in Just a Gigolo.

“David Bowie Is” has most of his alter egos, thematically arranged—Major Tom, Ziggy, Aladdin Sane, Thin White Duke—with Bowie’s voice in your headphones the whole time, being funny and fabulous, laughing and throwing in the occasional song. No sign of the Laughing Gnome, or any pictures of him overweight and faltering onstage in New York in his first public appearance after his heart attack—a painful sight of the man who inspired a million diets. If the coolest skeletor on the planet can gain weight, anyone can!

The golden years around Hunky Dory and Scary Monsters couldn’t last forever. In Uncle David’s middle years there were ugly rumors that he’d traded his talent for stardom and—shock, horror—wanted to make millions. Does one prefer not to be paid for his work? At the end of the affair, he killed off his evil twins with the sexy lack of conscience of a lad insane and moved to another town. From London to Berlin to, um, Geneva, and finally New York, a city that must have been made just for him. Though in the 21st century, perhaps it’s time to pack a bag and move on—maybe to Mars.

If Bowie were just a pop star, we could measure out our lives with his songs. Youth never dies, it’s just hiding in your heart. But Bowie is a Svengali of the collective imagination. And so, as we exit the show, a picture taken on his 66th birthday watches from the wall looking like a cross between Tommy Newton, the alien he plays in The Man Who Fell to Earth, and the aging vampire he plays in The Hunger. One gets the sense David Bowie’s still in there jamming good with Weird and Gilly, the Spiders from Mars.

Follow Vivien Lash, or read more about her in her evil twin Carole Morin’s novel Spying on Strange Men.

David Bowie Is, V&A Museum, through August 11, 2013, in partnership with Gucci.