‘Something Happened on the Day He Died’: How David Bowie Fans Transformed Brixton at FSNNA19

Below you can find my slides and outline from the presentation I gave at the Fan Studies Network North America academic conference on October 25, 2019, at DePaul University, Chicago, IL in the Agency in Music Fandoms panel. This is part of my MA thesis research, that I am currently working on at the CUNY Graduate Center. Additionally, some of this work will be published soon in the Journal of Popular Culture.

You can watch the video of my presentation by clicking here! Thank you to Jessie Salfen for filming.

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This presentation is part of my thesis research, where I am using David Bowie as a case study on the intersections of fandom, celebrity death, and tourism.
As you may know, musician, actor, and international icon David Bowie died on January 10th, 2016 after a secret battle with cancer. His death came as a shock to fans and occurred just two days after his 69th birthday and the release of his final album Blackstar.

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The day after his death, about 4.3 million tweets were posted eulogizing and celebrating Bowie in the first 24 hours – per the DailyMail. One tweet, in particular, seen here below and left, suggested having a street party in Bowie’s hometown of Brixton in South London, which was seen by other fans and eventually picked up by news outlets like NME, The Independent, and more. This led to a Facebook event being made to further spread the word of this spontaneous memorial, seen below, right. It did not seem to matter whose idea the party was, just that as many people as possible could join on short notice. This is an example of how social media posts can lead to “support through action” where fans meet up at “real-life” events to connect with their community (Courbet and Fourquet-Courbet 285).

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The Bowie Brixton Street Party took place on the evening of January 11, 2016. The original proposed meet-up location was at The Ritzy / Windrush Square on Brixton Road (the bottom-most highlighted location). The Ritzy is a famous cinema on Brixton’s high street and is situated at a large open, public space known as Windrush Square – which was named after the ship that brought the first Afro-Carribean Immigrants to London post-WWII. The Brixton Underground station is the very end of the Victoria line in London, and is located at the second lightning bolt – is where Brixton Road meets Tunstall Road. On Tunstall Road (which is really more of an alley) there is a huge mural of David Bowie as Aladdin Sane that was painted in 2013. Going slightly south from the tube station, one can find David Bowie’s birthplace at 40 Stansfield Road.
The proximity of these three sites was the main reason Brixton stood apart from all the spontaneous gatherings happening in the wake of Bowie’s death, and why this neighborhood has endured as a site of pilgrimage. The area is readily serviced by multiple bus routes, the London Underground and Overground lines, and all of these are accessible to disabled users. The neighborhood is flat ground, and easy to navigate, so fans could access these three points of interest the night of the street party – and beyond – to celebrate Bowie’s life. 

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No official number is known, but it is estimated that thousands of fans gathered in Brixton to remember Bowie. Fans sang his songs, wore their Aladdin Sane face paint, danced, projected his videos on buildings, and left material tributes for Bowie at his birthplace and at the mural – typically graffiti, cards, newspaper articles, flowers, candles, and the like. “Spontaneous memorials help mediate the crisis of sudden, inexplicable loss… that are highly scripted performances of mourning and managing grief” (Doss, 298).
Here we can see what these three sites looked like on January 11, 2016.

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The local government of Brixton, the Lambeth Council, estimates about 5000 people left tributes at the mural on Tunstall Road the weekend of Bowie’s death. Due to the massive public gathering in Brixton, news outlets and social media documented the “spontaneous memorial” that slowly turned permanent, if only by fans’ persistence. This was the birth of the main ritual fans enact: coming to Brixton, visiting the mural, leaving a tribute, taking a photo, and remembering Bowie. Shrines like Brixton’s mural allow the dead to remain in our lives, we can visit and connect with them whenever we want, and can become authors of their legacy. Death does not rob us of celebrities, it gives them to us. Death didn’t take Bowie away, it made him more accessible.

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Due to fans’ ongoing persistence and attention to the mural on Tunstall Road, The Lambeth Council has made it a protected site, reassuring that this will be a pilgrimage landscape for years to come. Originally they just had the artist of the mural come back on occasion to touch up the work, then they installed plexiglass sheets over the mural allowing notes to be tucked in, and finally, in 2018 they installed a massive plexiglass sheet that is properly secured to the wall and isn’t going anywhere. But by installing these protective sheets, they are protecting not just the mural but the graffitied love letters to Bowie underneath. Thus, they are protecting the legacy of Bowie-in-Brixton, in addition to Bowie-fans-in-Brixton.
This means Brixton becomes a place to think about David Bowie’s fans as much as it is a place to think about his life and career. His fandom is now as tied to Brixton as he is.
Despite protecting this site, there is no official interpretation of it or the graffiti that surrounds it. This means the area is open to anyone’s interpretation and anyone can take a photo, share it, and create their own narrative of what is happening there and why.
Archaeologist Paul Graves-Brown argues that shrines, like this one for Bowie, “are the product of collective and democratic popular activity” – which means we can call this a site of participatory authorship.

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The mural and its online archive, through social media, blogs, and travel sites, becomes a form of participatory memory, which Liza Potts defines as “the ways in which people memorialize, celebrate, and reflect across physical and digital spaces.” By engaging with the site, fans can influence the story that is being told about Bowie’s life. Derek Alderman, writing of Graceland’s graffitied outer wall, argues that landscapes like these show “the visible articulation of multiple, sometimes competing discourses…” which demonstrates the versatile way in which these celebrities are important to visitors. (Alderman 28). The journeys fans make to Brixton, and the act of visiting sites like the mural and enacting these rituals we’ve discussed, allows fans to become authors of Bowie’s memory rather than simply a consumer of it. Bowie’s fans are ultimately the ones mediating and writing his image in Brixton. They are the ones creating the interpretation of these sites in question. This allows them to portray him in the ways that mean the most to them: other-worldly, comforting, iconic, a sex symbol, a friend. Every persona Bowie embodied throughout his career can be featured and remembered at the mural in Brixton, as long as a fan wants them there.

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The otherwise average neighborhood where Bowie was born becomes sacred through the mediation of tourist literature and web-postings from fans, locals, and news outlets. Similar to the study Jennifer Otter Bickerdike and John Sparrowhawk conducted on Bowie’s Berlin, the “‘sacralization’ process” occurring in Brixton is “further reinforced by… the rise of Web 2.0, E-Word of Mouth and the growth of networked communities… which augment existing narratives about sacred places and peoples experience of them” (53). Through the media coverage shared online about Bowie’s Brixton, the importance of each site is strengthened and further reaffirmed with each new post on the subject.
This mediation of physical locations allows fans to enter Brixton with knowledge of the area, which can have two effects: fans can become desensitized to the scene and find themselves underwhelmed as the sites do not live up to the hype created around them, or the mediation can make Brixton feel familiar and therefore comfortable to fans upon their arrival. The mediation also conveys to fans at home what rituals they should enact once they are in the area. For example:: Media like this video and article from The Culture Trip contribute to Brixton’s tourist literature. “The Best Things To Do In Brixton” begins with our host arriving at the Bowie mural, looking at tributes, and writing his own message on the wall.

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Previously, pilgrimages to Brixton were folk events but the persistent fan attention given to the area led to the creation of commercial tours, like Bowie Tour London, which was created in 2017. They advertise their Brixton tour as “an all encompassing journey from birth to death,” and here you can see some photos from when I took their tour in January of this year. Brixton naturally lends itself to the story arc of Bowie’s life, beginning at Stansfield Rd. (below, left) and ending at Windrush Square and the mural – where fans went when he died (right). To borrow Bickerdike and Sparrowhawk’s words – By touring the area – alone or with a guide – fans “normalize and rationalize the transformation of the spaces from overlooked to revered” (Bickerdike & Sparrowhawk 57).

Without Bowie’s fans, Brixton is just another place he temporarily lived. It only becomes a destination through their attention (ibid.). This is evident through the lack of landscape interpretation like heritage plaques or posthumously erected monuments, that has still become the place to spend an afternoon with David Bowie’s life in a physical way. Visiting Brixton, to use Jennifer Otter Bickerdike’s words, allows the “fan to ‘follow’ Bowie, feel closer to them, if only for a few minutes. It happened here” (Bickerdike 129).

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Brixton was always proud of it’s hometown hero, and it has responded to the increased tourism from Bowie-mania in stride. For example, the mural is painted on the side of a Morleys department store, which features a large selection of Bowie merchandise in addition to general Brixton and London souvenirs. To me, this reaffirms Brixton and the mural in particular as a tourist destination for Bowie fans, as locals would not buy Brixton centric kitsch for themselves. Other shops in the area have also embraced Bowie in their own ways, like hanging artwork related to him on their walls, or like the cafe Brixton Blend having a special “Stardust” blend of espresso coffee. Even the UK hotel chain Premier Inn features a life-size reproduction of the Bowie mural in the hotel lobby of their Brixton location, despite being a two-minute walk from the actual wall.  Additionally, fans can find a truly unique souvenir in a Brixton Pound note. Brixton has it’s own local currency, and Bowie is featured on their ten pound note. This was created before his death, but it is truly something you can’t find anywhere else but Brixton, and it has become even more of a collectible for fans since his passing.
This mediation and selling of Brixton and Bowie would theoretically clash with the idea of it being a scared site for fans, but it seems to only amplify the message that Brixton is the ultimate destination for them. It is also interesting that despite the merchandise and experiences for sale in Brixton, fans and tourists continue to focus on the mural as the main way to connect with David Bowie.

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So what’s the aftermath?
Bowie’s fans are creating a new layer of meaning for Brixton, that is being embraced by the local government and businesses – because, It’s good for business! And, for a neighborhood undergoing gentrification, Bowie tourism can signal safety to white people who in some cases are still scared to visit the area after multiple instances rioting in response to a series of police brutality acts against immigrants and people of color in the 1980s.
Bowie Mania sanitizes Brixton’s occasionally troubled past and eclipses Brixton’s vibrant history and culture, that is largely a history of Afro-Carribean immigrants. Bowie was actually a small part of Brixton’s overall history – He only lived there for the first six years of his life, but to fans that seems to be a minor detail.
Yes, Something happened on the day he died: the three separate entities of Bowie, Brixton, and fandom became intertwined, inseparable and enduring. Bowie’s fandom is now part of the history of the area, whether locals like it or not. His fans have forever left their mark on Brixton, and it remains to be seen just how severe the transformation will be based on their repeated visits to the neighborhood as time goes on.

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If you enjoyed this and learned something, you can support my continued research and work by: buying me a cup of coffee: https://ko-fi.com/valderie or becoming a patron: https://www.patreon.com/valderie


Works Cited:

  • Alderman, Derek H. “Writing on the Graceland Wall: On the Importance of Authorship in Pilgrimage Landscapes.” Tourism Recreation Research, vol. 27, no. 2, 2002, pp. 27-33.
  • Bickerdike, Jennifer Otter. Fandom, Image and Authenticity: Joy Devotion and the Second Lives of Kurt Cobain and Ian Curtis. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
  • Bickerdike, Jennifer Otter, and John Charles Sparrowhawk, “Desperately Seeking Bowie: How Berlin Bowie Tourism Transcends the Sacred,” Enchanting David Bowie: Space/Time/Body/Memory, edited by Toija Cinque, Christopher Moore, and Sean Redmond, Bloomsbury Academic, 2015, pp. 49-60.
  • Courbet, Didier and Marie-Pierre Fourquet-Courbet “When a Celebrity Dies …Social Identity, Uses of Social Media, and the Mourning Process Among Fans: the Case of Michael Jackson.” Celebrity Studies, vol. 5, no. 3, 2014, pp. 275-290.
  • Dean, Christina. “The Best Things To Do in Brixton.” The Culture Trip, 13 Mar. 2019. http://www.theculturetrip.com/europe/united-kingdom/england/london/articles/the-best-things-to-see-and-do-in-brixton/. Accessed 20 Mar. 2019.
  • Doss, Erika. “Spontaneous Memorials and Contemporary Modes of Mourning in America.” Material Religion, vol. 2, no. 3, 2006, pp. 294–319.
  • Giaimo, Cara. “Decoding London’s Spontaneous David Bowie Shrines.” Atlas Obscura, 6 Apr. 2017. http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/david-bowie-shrine-study. Accessed 05 Jan. 2019.
  • Potts, Liza. Participatory Memory: Fandom Experiences Across Time and Space, 2018. http://www.participatorymemory.org/. Accessed 29 Oct. 2018



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