Why Lorde’s Brit Awards David Bowie Tribute Was So Good

There’s no such thing as a “right” or “tasteful” way to pay tribute to an artist like David Bowie — not just because he was one of the last half-century’s epochal geniuses, but also because one of the ways he pushed art (and, arguably, human life in general) forward was by challenging what was widely believed to be “right” and “tasteful.” Still, some of the past six weeks’ celebrations have felt more appropriate than others, and one of the best I’ve seen took place on last night’s Brit Awards. (Bowie’s son Duncan Jones seems to agree.)

The memorial portion of the ceremony, which lasted a full 15 minutes, began with Annie Lennox — who, along with sharing certain of his aesthetic influences, performed with Bowie at a 1992 tribute to Freddie Mercury — introducing a posthumous Icon Award. “It’s almost impossible to mention Bowie’s name in the past tense,” she said. “Everything he represented as an artist will be vital and incredibly present.”

Gary Oldman accepted the honor on behalf of his friend, digging deep into what it means to be an “icon,” telling poignant personal anecdotes that also highlighted Bowie’s sense of humor, and quoting a stirring passage from his 1999 graduation speech at Berklee College of Music:

Music has given me over 40 years of extraordinary experiences. I can’t say that life’s pains or more tragic episodes have been diminished because of it. But it’s allowed me so many moments of companionship when I’ve been lonely and a sublime means of communication when I wanted to touch people. It’s been both my doorway of perception and the house that I live in.

Then, Bowie’s voice singing “Ground Control to Major Tom” echoed through the theater, the words just as clear and otherworldly and arresting as the first time you ever heard them, and the music began. The screens at the back of the stage showed a montage of images of Bowie throughout his career. As at the Grammys, the band played a medley of his most famous songs. This time, though, the musicians were Bowie’s most recent live band (Sterling Campbell, Gail Ann Dorsey, Mike Garson, Gerry Leonard, Catherine Russell, and Earl Slick — a group of very talented musicians whose diversity in terms of race and gender is worth noticing), and the medley was almost entirely instrumental. It was surprisingly haunting to hear his most memorable melodies stripped of their vocals.

But the moment everyone is talking about today (and rightfully so) came at the end, when Lorde joined the band to perform “Life on Mars?” Outside of some glittery eye makeup, there was nothing flashy about her performance. She sang the song, unquestionably one of Bowie’s greatest, with few of the vocal embellishments it could have supported, sticking instead to her signature rasp and angular arm movements. You could see Lorde thinking and feeling her way through each syllable, though, her expression searching and her eyes alive. When she finished, you could see that those eyes were wet and red-rimmed.

There’s an easy trap to fall into, comparing Lorde and the Brit Awards’ tribute with Lady Gaga’s Nile Rodgers-assisted performance at the Grammys. And though I wasn’t a fan of the latter (neither was Duncan Jones, this coy tweet suggests), I’m not actually here to tear down Gaga. It’s tempting to position Lorde’s as the more authentic tribute; maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t, though I’d certainly have no trouble believing that the orange-haired, elaborately costumed, Broadway-like spectacle we witnessed at the Grammys came straight from the heart of Stefani Germanotta.

Anyway, the problem with this whole line of thinking is that to insist upon the superiority of what we tend to call authenticity over what we tend to call artifice is to do a far graver injustice to Bowie’s legacy than Lady Gaga did. One of the greatest lessons he (like Oscar Wilde before him) taught us was that self-consciously constructed spectacle can be a more effective vehicle for emotional truth than that cliché of the guitar-playing troubadour on a bare stage, singing from their very soul.

Lorde’s performance resonated with me for a few reasons that have nothing to do with what she did or didn’t wear. First, there was the intimacy she managed to create with that raspy whisper and those serious, searching eyes. Watching her felt like watching any smart 19-year-old alone in her bedroom, listening for the first time to that song — which is actually about a teenage girl dreaming of an existence beyond everyday boredom — and finding within it an escape hatch to the future. Aside from Velvet Goldmine, there’s probably never been a better representation of what it’s like to let Bowie’s music change your life.

And then there’s just how very Lorde it all was. On Facebook the day after Bowie died, she posted one of the most stunning remembrances of him that I’ve read. Writing of their well-documented meeting at a Vogue event, she recalled, “That night something changed in me — I felt a calmness grow, a sureness. I think in those brief moments, he heralded me into my next new life, an old rock and roll alien angel in a perfect grey suit. I realized everything I’d ever done, or would do from then on, would be done like maybe he was watching. I realized I was proud of my spiky strangeness because he had been proud of his.” That spiky strangeness was on full display at the Brits, and with it a rush of newness, of youth, of originality that captured Bowie’s influence better than any costume could.

You’re can’t pay tribute to David Bowie by trying to embody David Bowie; you have to do it by creating something of your very own.