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How David Bowie soundtracked Tracy Emin's teenage years

Our teenage years, for better or worse, come to dominate our memory. There’s something about those awkward, hormone-ridden seven or so years that – no matter how hard we try to shake them off – stick with us. I don’t know about you, but much of the music I listened to during that period of my life has proven to be the most important. Perhaps it’s that we’re more absorbant the younger we are, but it’s very rare for me to react to a song as strongly as I did when I was a teenager. Music seemed to carry so much more weight, with specific lyrics capturing something I had yet to find the vocabulary for. The same was true for Tracey Emin, the legendary YBA artist who rose to prominence in the explosive final decade of the 20th century. For her, it was the music of David Bowie that soundtracked her adolescent years, capturing her imagination and showing her infinite possibilities in the same, soulful breath.

Those of you who don’t know Tracey Emin’s name almost certainly know her work. In the 1990s, the controversial artist shot an arrow straight into the heart of the modern British art scene with a range of confessional and heavily autobiographical installation pieces. With pieces like ‘My Bed’ and ‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept With’, she proved that art didn’t have to be something you simply gazed towards. Instead, Emin’s work demonstrated that art could be something experiential, profound, and relatable. She is regarded as one of the most important artists of the 1990s, and, in 2011, she was appointed professor of drawing at the Royal Academy. 

In an interview back in 2015, Emin described the critical role David Bowie played throughout her teenage years, a time in which she was exploring her place within the world. She explained that “David Bowie made a big impression on me because of the way he dressed, because he was poetic, because of his attitude. I got into him when I was 13 or 14, along with Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed.” Like so many others of her generation, Emin was struck by Bowie’s intense belief in the value of art and artistry. His belief in his own strength as a performer, in his own identity, and his ability to express himself made a significant impact on Emin at a critical age.

The pioneering artist went on to say: “I’ve probably listened to ‘Young Americans’ more than any other song. Later, I got to know David Bowie quite well. When I first met him, he said he really liked my work. And I said: ‘Me too! I’ve been listening to your music all my life’. It’s really nice when that happens, especially when it’s someone you really admire and who’s changed history through their music.” 

No wonder Emin and Bowie ended up friends. They both seemed to carry the same reverence for creativity, and with their individualistic approaches to art and music, they made a profound impact on their respective art forms, leaving legacies that endure to this day.

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