Bowie's Top of the Pops performance plays on a loop behind his quilted "Starman" suit.
Bowie's Top of the Pops performance plays on a loop behind his quilted "Starman" suit. Credit: Andrea Bauer

When we heard “David Bowie Is” was coming to the Museum of Contemporary Art, there was no way we were not going to go. It was a moral obligation for Bowie superfan Brianna Wellen, and Aimee Levitt was curious if the exhibit would be the revolutionary combination of sight and sound it was hyped to be.

Aimee Levitt: As a Bowie fanatic, do you feel that the exhibit was complete? I didn’t know much about him before it started, and I learned a lot.

Brianna Wellen: I really do. My only concern going into it was how the museum was going to incorporate the music with all the history and visual aspects of Bowie’s career. But of course it had a plan for that.

AL: That was a fantastic idea, using headphones to coordinate sight and sound. I’ve never experienced anything like that before, and it helped to listen to Bowie’s music at the same time as I was looking at all his different incarnations. I don’t think I really appreciated Bowie before because I never really saw him, only heard him.

BW: The “Starman” setup was particularly wonderful for that because it incorporated the song, the video, and the costume. Staring into the mirrored alcove holding the propped-up costume Bowie wore while performing on Top of the Pops with the life-size “Starman” performance playing behind it felt like a private concert. When Bowie pointed at the camera as he sang, it was like he was pointing right at me! It really felt like the live-music experience, which the curators emphasized trying to emulate.

AL: Did you scream like a British schoolgirl?

BW: I DID. Thank goodness no one could hear me because we were all wearing headphones. I even started singing along a couple times without even realizing.

AL: I saw a lot of people walking in a rhythmic manner, like they wanted to dance but were repressing themselves because they were in public.

BW: I full-out danced when “Let’s Dance” was playing. When Bowie says “dance,” you dance.

Probably the most emotionally gratifying thing was seeing handwritten lyrics and journal entries and nonsensical thoughts that turned into some of my favorite songs.

AL: It made me appreciate that Bowie himself is really a work of art. The idea that he didn’t feel like being himself, so he decided to be someone else—or a lot of someone elses—is so liberating. And the amount of care he put into it was so incredible too. Did you see the charts he made for Hunger City? He was such a big nerd!

One thing I think the exhibit missed out on was explaining how David Jones decided to become David Bowie.

BW: Setting himself apart from the Monkees’ Davy Jones was a huge catalyst.

AL: But why “Bowie”? They were really careful about explaining all the other incarnations, like the mime stuff and the Japanese influence and German expressionism and cabaret.

BW: I often think of Bowie as having such distinct personas at very specific points in time, but the exhibit did more clearly show the journey from each character to the next. The greatest thing about Bowie is that he did take in such a wide range of influences to create another completely unique entity.

AL: I don’t think most people think that an identity is something that can be created, and definitely not that elaborately, with so much control, like a work of art. One of my favorite things was the “Blue Jean” video, where he was this Lord Byronesque rock star and then this superuncool 80s yuppie. And he was so great at being both.

BW: The exhibit also showed all the different things he did outside of his rock star life. He was an actor, a painter, and inventor of a computer program called the Verbasizer. There’s that nerdy streak again!

AL: He said using the Verbasizer to put words together in random combinations was like getting images from a dream state without the boredom of going to sleep.

But one of the interesting things was that the British curator, Geoffrey Marsh, said he never got to know David Jones at all. It was all David Bowie. So even though Bowie gave them unlimited access to his archives, he still had complete control. Well, his cocaine spoon is on display, too. Actually, the story of how he moved to Berlin to get over his coke addiction was pretty sad.

BW: The whole exhibit was kind of an emotional roller coaster for me. Because everyone has on headphones, it’s just you and Bowie, living his high highs and his low lows. Looking at the handwritten lyrics to “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” nestled among all of his album covers while listening to candid moments of Bowie in the recording studio, well, I felt things.

AL: I had the opposite feeling. With so many other singers like, say, Bruce Springsteen, their songs are about things that really happened to them. And after a certain point, they just stop being interesting, because they’re stuck being themselves. Or the public idea of themselves anyway. Except for the coke thing, I felt like David Bowie is this really elaborate work of art, which is why he warrants a big museum exhibit. The exhibit shows how this David Bowie thing was created. I can’t really think of any other singer who you could do this for. I saw an exhibit about Woody Guthrie a few years ago, who was also self-constructed, although the artificiality wasn’t as obvious as Bowie’s, but a lot of it was tied into historical events, like the Depression. Bowie exists on his own terms.

BW: He’s an alien who’s created his own history.

AL: Has anyone else done that so successfully? Because the exhibit makes it clear he’s much, much more than a rock star.

BW: Even though he’s been at it for 50 years, it still seems impossible that he was able to do all he’s done while still somehow creating this David Jones life that we know nothing about.

AL: I like that we know nothing about David Jones.

BW: He’s married to a supermodel and his son makes sci-fi movies. Maybe he’s not that different from Bowie.

AL: I like what the curator said about the picture of him when he was 16, of how he was already looking through the lens of the camera at his audience, even though he didn’t have one yet.

BW: It was interesting to hear young Bowie was drawn to Little Richard. That was a connection I never made, but considering Richard’s glamour and showmanship, it makes perfect sense.

As a Bowie novice, do you feel like you’ve been properly schooled?

AL: I do! I appreciate him so much more now.

BW: Welcome to the wonderful, magical world of Bowie fandom.