Julia Ingalls has always reconciled difficult times through music. “The mark of any rejuvenating song, no matter how many times you’ve heard it, is that it will always mean a different thing to you, depending on when you hear it in your life and what obstacles you are facing,” she told us. And that was definitely true with David Bowie’s “Modern Love” on the night of the election.
When I first heard David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” I lived in rural Colorado, where I would be routinely pummeled into the grade-school playground by a group of boys. Like all insecure tyrants, the boys’ ringleader, Peter, didn’t like the fact that I showed no fear, so he tried to induce it, four on one. I remember thinking that, while they could hurt my body, they couldn’t hurt me, the inviolate, stubborn self I carried inside. I was taken in by the song and the video, because music videos were a thing then: tall, well-lit people dancing under a silver piñata moon. It represented the utopia where I wanted to go, the joyous energy of adults being successful in large, tolerant cities. I did not understand what cocaine was at this stage.
Years later, when I was living in Los Angeles and working among a set of overachievers who totally understood what cocaine was, I heard the song again. I was sitting in a leather banquette in a bar in Venice. It was only 70 feet from the beach but steeped in the dingy darkness of a centuries-old Catholic church. In that long and narrow and somehow accusatory space — less drinking spot than bar-stool-lined confessional — I was enduring that particularly achy stretch of misery you can get in your 20s when you begin to realize how vast the world is and how easy it is to completely lose your way in it. One of my first jobs was in automotive parts customer service, where men I didn’t know from all over the country would curse me out because I spoke to them as equals about serpentine belt systems. After thousands of phone calls, I became an expert in understanding someone’s intent, bias and likely intellectual capacity just by the way they said “hello” to me. I also learned how to shut bullies down by asking them one question: “What is it that you want out of this exchange?” Survival is never about battling hate with hate; it’s about disarming hate at its source.
This skill proved handy when I started to take on more complex work; by my 27th birthday, I was a kind of genius-whisperer, working with famous, irascible personalities and getting their respect because I refused to be frightened or intimidated by them. I found myself gently calming people who spoke five languages but couldn’t get anyone to truly understand them. I ignored their prestigious prizes and magazine profiles and A-list contacts, preferring instead to connect with the person, not the persona. I never let them push me around; I treated them as equals and held them accountable for their behavior. They looked at me in astonishment, and then with gratitude.
But it was a weird, unsettling time: To be a professional at finding humanity in the inhumane takes its own kind of toll. When I wasn’t working, I wanted nothing more than to be apart from people, to be spared the work of finding gold in the shit. My co-workers, all of who generally cowered in front of the people whom I was making laugh, treated me like a curiosity, a likable but ultimately foreign messenger. They bought me drinks and I told them highly edited tales (I never betray anyone’s confidence). I was among them, but I was not really part of them. So in that bar, the song came on and it was no longer about success but deep, dark, well-heeled irony. The song was now a lesson in how to battle alienation with a snazzy rictus, to stand among the brightest lights yet feel utterly alone, in the dark.
The last time I heard the song was on November 8. I had left an election night party with dear friends where we were too horrified to even drink properly. At the party, it felt like letting go of just a millimeter of sanity was too dangerous in a country that had apparently gone insane. Everything that we had cultivated as a civilization was ending before our eyes in a pop-culture-gilded hate carnival. You could try to blame any number of things: the forefather of divisive, fascist politics, Lee Atwater, or sneaky voter suppression tactics or the Oxycontin-fueled desperation of people too addled to think.
But my entire life I’ve been listening to a song sung by a man who had been bullied so badly in his youth that the pupil of one eye had been permanently dilated. David Bowie went on to be an idiosyncratic, queer, thoughtful, masterful and gentle artist, and attracted millions, if not billions, of fans. When he died, I felt the loss of my secret friend, the ally who loved when he was hated, who remained strong when they had wanted him to be weak. But I was hardly alone in this feeling; the entire planet mourned him. So, we are not isolated; we are not uncommon; we are not outnumbered. Involuntary times may once again be upon us, but, together, we cannot lose if we refuse to be defeated.
Julia Ingalls is primarily an essayist. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Salon, Guernica, Dwell, The L.A. Weekly, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and on 89.9 KCRW, among other places. She’s into it.
David Bowie image by vinylmeister.