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David Bowie: Everything has changed, he changed everything

Though David Robert Jones, the boy from Brixton, is no longer with us, David Bowie, the artist, through his music, films, plays, paintings, and explorations of gender, sexuality, religion, love, fear, and death, remains.

In what seemed to be a creative life constantly in flux, living up to the postmodern imperative of perpetual change, David Bowie was an utterly consistent artist. Each album noticeably has the Bowie sound, even when it sounds disparate from the others—a sound that makes them timeless. He elegantly shifted between expressing himself through music, theatre, film, and painting with an air of grand experimentation and extravagant ambition. David Bowie was an inspiration to countless artists from Marilyn Manson to Madonna, Kanye to Radiohead, all of whom cite him as an influence. His impact can be observed in many ways, be it hearing echoes of his distinctive voice, his utilization of new technologies and methods in the studio, his practice of bringing outlandish fashion to music, his ability to blend musical genres to create a novel sound, or his complete commitment to embodying a song in performance.

Bowie V&A
Outside the V&A Shop during the David Bowie exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Photo by Tiffany Naiman 2013.

David Bowie’s career spanned five decades and his impact on popular music since the 1960s is unmatched. In each decade of his career, Bowie brought underground music to the fore, taking the avant-garde and often making it commercially successful. Starting as a folk singer in the 1960s, he moved on to revolutionize rock and experimental music twice in the 1970s — first with glam rock and then with the arty and brooding synthesizer-infused Berlin Trilogy recordings made with Brian Eno. During the height of his commercial success in the mid-1980s, he topped the charts with modified New Wave pop music infused with the grooves of his plastic soul era. Bowie innovatively utilized the sounds of electronica, industrial, and drum & bass during his return to creating art rock in the 1990s and early aughts. An early pioneer in digital music, Bowie was among the first to offer music to purchase and download from his own website, starting with the release of his single “Telling Lies” in 1996. More recently, he made his first single and corresponding video from his critically acclaimed 2013 album, The Next Day, “Where Are We Now?” available on iTunes and his personal website with no advance fanfare — an action that demonstrated his mastery of the social nature of the Internet and would later be duplicated by Beyoncé. With his final record Blackstar (2016), he created some of the most brilliant and groundbreaking art of his career while directly confronting his own mortality. The form and structure of his recordings, music videos, and live performances explore the limits of the mediums in ways that disrupt the normative practice of rock music.

In 1996 David Bowie was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame by former Talking Heads front man David Byrne with the words “He was both kind of a shrink and a priest, a sex object and a prophet of doom. He was kind of the welcome to the new world, to the brave new world.” Madonna accepted the honor for him that night, describing her first teenage experience of David Bowie as a performance of “great theater” that changed and inspired her. As presenters and representatives of Bowie at his induction, Byrne and Madonna exemplified the dual nature of David Bowie as a musical artist: the rock star who creates art music, and the highly produced pop star reveling in artificial and visually engaging spectacle. David Bowie’s music, personae, and elaborate visuals contributed to popular music, performance, and aesthetics, pushing the boundaries of rock and pop music and expanding the definition of the modern popular musician.

David Bowie, shooting his video for Rebel Rebel in 1974. Photo by AVRO. Beeld en Geluid Wiki, Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Scholarship on David Bowie is still nascent, but the growing body of work on him has tended to focus on themes of darkness, alienation, and death in his music, often ignoring what I see as a basic tenet that underpins his oeuvre and one of his most prevalent themes—love. Bowie stated, “When you are young you think so much is important, including oneself, but as you get older I think you find less and less is important apart from some very fundamental things—one of them being a love of one’s fellow man.” Examination of his career shows he has always emphasized this type of love. Bowie sang of alienation, but not a nihilistic or irreparable one; it was a disaffection forged from an awareness of the existence of powerful love, at times inaccessible. Bowie expressed human needs in an alien guise, opening the possibility for connection with something that is both us and “other.” From a place of deep isolation, his distinctive voice yearns for connection, allowing him to speak to all who felt they were outsiders, unable to fit into the world around them. Though his created dystopian worlds were filled with violence, perversion, and excess, there was always hope for transformation through love. This is David Bowie’s continued legacy; he pointed us toward our own transformations and potential through his own: “I’m not a prophet / or a stone age man / Just a mortal / with the potential of a superman.”

Headline image credit: David Bowie Graffiti. Photo by Louise McLaren. CC BY 2.0.

Recent Comments

  1. Victor Ochoa

    David Bowie indeed was reliable to push the boundaries of what is called a song, and a popular song at that, what it can contain, or what it can do. But I most remember how he transferred some notion regarding a playful and mocking gesture he once made into a statement against fascism in his endlessly fascinating and sometimes frustrating album entitled Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). Could be referring to a ridiculous troglodyte who’s 15 minutes are more than up in the US, but who persists because of the ignorance of the people of our US.

  2. Andy lowe

    The was definitely a one off, other stars just do music, he did music,drama,painting,acting,producer, playwright,business man, thinker and social commentator.
    Lives on, digitally in the internet .

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