David Bowie probably is, above all else, a shrewd businessperson. Throughout his long career, he's found a way to combine interesting riffs and catchy hook lines, the classic formula for success in pop music.
He also created a sometimes androgynous and always pliant public persona. People are as intrigued by him, and thereby inclined to buy his records and attend his concerts, as they have been by Greta Garbo, Bob Dylan, and others.
But the real clincher in Bowie's appeal, I think, has been his marriage of a passionate, dramatic, almost theatrical style of vocalizing (the appeal of which is probably enhanced by the fact that his is a rather thin voice, practically incapable of doing what he demands of it) with lyrical content that is often world-weary and cynical.
Like many pop icons before and since, Bowie has thus been able to have it both ways: He can rouse or hint at genuine emotions while all the while, in effect, standing to the side, smirkily laughing off the emotions he sings about. Does Bowie mean to satirize the feelings, relationships, and institutions he lampoons? Yes, but...
A few years ago, I wrote a song that opens with the lines:
In this age when passion has gone so out of fashion,In a way, David Bowie epitomizes a world culture that has forgotten all about genuine passion, a word that means loving someone or something so much that one is willing to die for them or it. Our media-saturated world has become jaded by the regular attempts made to manipulate our emotions.
When the words, "I love you" ring subversive...
On top of that, an attenuated Freudianism--or is it simply an international case of John Wayne individualism?--that finds people insisting human beings are little more than biological entities doing what's best for themselves, everyone else be damned, has depersonalized the human race and individual people we encounter.
Today, the planet has stopped and taken notice of the death of someone whose world view most emphatically did not match the one that David Bowie's music seems to represent.
Unlike Bowie and so many generations of pop stars, John Paul II never warbled theatrically. He was, in fact, understated in his communication style. As Zbigniev Brzezinski, one-time national security adviser to Jimmy Carter commented today in an interview on National Public Radio, the Pope was no demagogue. But John Paul's understated (and at the end of his life, painfully articulated) words conveyed more genuine passion than we often see in all the faux-passion to which we are daily subjected in mass media.
That was the source of John Paul's connection to people, a connection to which much of the world---even the non-Roman Catholic world--is witnessing today through its grief over his death and its joy over his life.
The source of the late Pope's passion, of course, was the Passion, the gift of Self on the cross given to us all when God-in-the-flesh, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, became a human being and died for us.
Christ's suffering for us paid the price we owe God for our sin.
Christ deemed every human life to be of infinite value and so, worth taking the risk of becoming human, enduring human pain, and confronting the human temptation to take the ways of selfish ease rather than self-giving love.
Christ also deemed our value to be so great that He was willing to die for us and then to share with all who follow Him the power to live that life He reclaimed for Himself on the first Easter when He rose from the dead.
In gratitude for Christ's passion, John Paul II, a follower of Jesus, sought to reflect and live that passion for every human person.
That was why he turned the attention of the Roman Church to the world, embracing the world in all its diversity.
That was why he insisted that taking human life--whether through capital punishment, abortion, assisted suicide, or denying food and water to a disabled person--was wrong.
That was why he was an advocate of democracy and a foe of selfish materialism.
As many commentators have pointed out today, his continued functioning as pontiff even as his health failed dramatically was a witness for the fact that even the most disabled and frail among us have value because all of us are created in the image of God. Indeed, John Paul obviously believed what Saint Paul wrote in the New Testament, that as a follower of Christ, when he was weak, then he was strong. It's in our weakness that as Christians we become vulnerable and open enough to dismiss the lie of our self-sufficiency and to instead, rely on God's power.
John Paul's life, particularly near his death, was a loud AMEN! to Jesus' words, "Without Me, you can do nothing" and to Paul's affirmation that "I can do all things through Christ Who strengthens me." Through his tenacious clinging to Christ as his earthly life ebbed away, we saw how the life God gives to us can never be taken from the soul surrendered to Christ!
John Paul II was not perfect. I disagreed with him on many points. But the world loved him--and I loved him--because he was an authentic follower of Jesus Christ, whose genuine passion for God and the inestimable value of every child of God, all made us dream of what might be possible if, powered by the living Christ, we learned to love God with every fiber of our beings and love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
UPDATE: Joe Gandelman, who's in charge of things at Dean's World on the weekends, presents excerpts and links to many blogs--including this one--as they react to the life and death of John Paul II. Check that out here.
BY THE WAY: I also link to two versions of an October, 2003 appreciation of John Paul which I wrote here.