Modern Love for David Bowie: A Young American's Brixton Pilgrimage

January 10, 2020

Affected by Bowie's death, master's student Valerie Gritsch applied her interest in pop culture to her academic research. She shares her story and findings.

Valerie Gritsch stands next to a memorial for David Bowie (Photo courtesy of Valerie Gritsch)
Valerie Gritsch stands next to a memorial for David Bowie (Photo courtesy of Valerie Gritsch)

People around the world mourned when David Bowie died of cancer on January 10, 2016, including Graduate Center master’s student Valerie Gritsch (Liberal Studies) who hadn’t even considered herself a huge fan of the singer. Impacted by the death, and fascinated by the global grief, Gritsch decided to take a deeper look at a Brixton street party that consisted of hundreds of fans singing and dancing in front of a mural of Bowie for hours to honor the icon.
She published her findings in a piece titled “How David Bowie Fans Transformed Brixton After His Death” in The Journal of Popular Culture. Her research also became her thesis project for her master's degree in Liberal Studies
Gritsch spent about two years researching the Bowie fandom and drawing connections of her own as she visited the mural in the South London district six times. She spoke to The Graduate Center about her findings.

The Graduate Center: What about the Bowie Brixton Street Party inspired you to follow the Bowie fandom in such an in-depth way?
Gritsch: I was watching it unfold in real time. I was like, ‘Oh this is really cool that this is happening and that this many people feel so much and they have a place they can all go and not just be sad, but he happy at the same time.’ I was able six months later to visit this mural … It stuck with me. It’s been interesting to not just see how the mural has evolved, but how fans react to it, and how the neighborhood around it shifts.
GC: Why do you believe this mural in this town has become so important to Bowie fans?
Gritsch: This was a popular, well-known mural that had been painted and it happened to be in his hometown. There’s this overarching need for fans, like, ‘I need to be near this person that meant a lot to me.’ I find there’s a lot of completeness in music fandom. It’s a great community to be a part of, you can find a lot of support from other fans, friendship.
GC: In your article, you highlighted Brixton’s rich Afro-Caribbean history that has been overshadowed by the fandom. Why was it important for you to shed light on this?
Gritsch: It was important to me to mention how Bowie has begun eclipsing the Afro-Caribbean history of the neighborhood because Brixton is currently undergoing regeneration and gentrification. This a community that has stood by Brixton, and Great Britain, since World War II. But in recent years, small and local mom and pop shops that have been in the neighborhood for decades have been forced out. They are being replaced with hip boutiques and chain stores. The related rise in the cost of living in the area can result in pushing out longtime residents. With all of this happening, it feels almost like a slap in the face to the community that made Brixton the neighborhood Bowie loved.
GC: Your studies as a master’s student have focused on popular culture, particularly fan communities? How did you manage to mix your pop culture interests with your scholarship?
Gritsch: I’ve always really loved music. It just felt like my entire life was either being involved in fan communities as a fan or moderating them in some capacity. I know my interests are pretty niche. But I’ve been able to take history courses and musicology courses and now I’m pulling in texts and research, but I’m still talking about music fans and popular culture. There’s a lack of writing in academia of music and popular music. It’s slowly becoming more and more published, but I’ve seen very little work about music fans, and I’m a huge music fan myself. Music fans are really impressive, and I want to keep writing about them.
GC: What is your advice for others looking to publish scholarship about popular culture?
Gritsch: I would say just focus on what interests you. There’s so much pop culture that we consume on a daily basis, and it’s very easy to get distracted or to have other people say, “Well why don’t you do this? It might be easier.” I think sticking to your guns and not being afraid to get a no, because you might be really surprised when they say yes.

Interested in getting a master's degree in Liberal Studies from The Graduate Center? Learn more here