By Aaron Ginsburg
When thinking back on the great musical innovators of the 20th century, no one can ignore the profound influence that David Bowie had on the genre of rock and roll, and the broader arena of popular music. It’s been nearly six years since his sudden death, and his devastating demise after an 18-month long battle with liver cancer still fills fans and music lovers around the world with despair.
To say Bowie played a role in the shaping of popular music we know today would be an understatement. Yes, he challenged what was considered conventional pop music by exploring new styles and using innovate techniques in playing and recording, but most importantly, he reinvented the image of the rock star and what it meant to be one.
Over the course of his career which spanned nearly six decades, Bowie compiled a vast and prolific discography. By the end, he had released 27 studio albums, nine of which reached number one in the UK’s album chart. His record sales have been estimated to be around 140 million internationally. The success of Bowie is undeniable, as well as the immense influence he had across music, fashion, sexuality, and culture.
The man known as David Bowie is remembered for his chameleon-like ability to take on different persona’s, each complete with their own signature appearance and purpose which was expressed through the music. Through his various characters: Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke, in addition to many others, Bowie inspired future artists to forget the standards and norms that artists thought they had to adhere to in order to make it.
The ability to conceptualize and switch between so many distinct personas is impressive, but it’s clear that Bowie always had an affinity for it. As Bowie told talk show host Russell Harty in 1973, “I take on the guises of different people I meet. I can switch accents within second of meeting somebody. I’ve always seemed to collect personalities.”
By disregarding the aging standards of the rock star, Bowie was able to create with an exhilarating degree of freedom. In the creation of new projects, it wasn’t simply about pleasing his fans by giving them something they’d expect. He aimed to challenge audiences through his experimentation. In a documentary about his final two albums, David Bowie: The Last Five Years, Bowie stated, “I think it’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfill other people’s expectations.” While his fans had gradually come to expect a certain degree of abnormality and other worldliness in his new projects, they would never really be able to guess what he had in store for them.
Glam and Sci-Fi
In the creation of these characters and the invention of their unique styles and appearances, Bowie reconstructed the art of the live performance and incorporated theatrics in a way that had never been done before. While he began his career as a musician, Bowie was always interested in theatre and the overall production of a piece of art. These innovations, pioneered by Bowie, were quickly adopted by other artists who shared the same creative viewpoints and led to the development of the subgenre known as glam rock, which Bowie is officially credited as being one of the leading contributors.
Glam rock is recognized not only as a musical subgenre, but also as a fashion style. Characteristics of this style include the use of extravagant costumes, hair styles, and makeup. The glam movement came about in response to the revolutionary sentiments of the 1960’s, with artists aiming to put emphasis on decadence and superficiality and return to the simpler song structures of the pop music that had come before.
Bowie was also one of the first artists whose fascination with science fiction and outer space came to define the aesthetic of their music for a period of time. Through his vast influence, Bowie was able to incorporate the science fiction aesthetic into popular music. In a similar fashion to George Clinton’s Funkadelic, Bowie used science fiction themed terminology and visuals to create an alien-like atmosphere. “Space Oddity,” one of Bowie’s first major hits, was released five days before the Apollo 11 moon landing. This creative approach capitalized on the appeal with space and science fiction that was growing extremely popular at the time. While Bowie would stray away from science fiction throughout the years when he was moving in a different creative direction, “Space Oddity” and Ziggy Stardust would be pivotal moments in his career that would define him as an artist and influence the future of science fiction for decades to come.
Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
Ziggy Stardust, the first of Bowie’s cast of iconic characters, became popular around the time of the release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in 1972, his fifth studio album. The project, a loosely connected concept album and rock opera, follows the story of Ziggy, an androgynous, bisexual alien that is sent to Earth to save it from a catastrophic disaster and instill hope in the population. Ziggy was an outcast, a literal outsider, who fans who could connect their own feelings of alienation to.
The album is considered to be one of the defining albums of glam rock and helped develop a cult following of Bowie. This character was the one that truly propelled Bowie to stardom and set the stage for the development of future characters like The Thin White Duke and Aladdin Sane.
On stage as Ziggy, Bowie would wear lip gloss, dramatic makeup, and flamboyant costumes. Ziggy’s wardrobe was ever changing, but some of his most iconic outfits included dresses, capes, body suits, heels, and his signature red mullet.
Androgyny and Sexuality
David Bowie’s use of his plethora of personas and their appearances weren’t only a statement about what it meant to be a rock star. In the way he experimented with his music and the aspect of live performance, Bowie also experimented with the idea of sexuality, gender, and identity. When Bowie started gaining popularity in the early 1970’s, he was very outspoken about his own sexuality. When asked about it in an interview in January of 1972, Bowie claimed that he was bisexual. Keep in mind, this was only five years after the British Parliament decriminalized homosexuality.
Some critics of Bowie claim that the professions of his own sexuality and his androgynous dressing were merely for publicity, basing this off the fact that Bowie made contradicting statements over the course of his career. In 1976, Bowie told a British journalist that his bisexuality “was just a lie,” complicating the public’s perception of his stance on the matter. However, it doesn’t matter whether or not Bowie was truly gay, bisexual, or straight. The important takeaway, and the main point, is that through his experimentation with his appearance and in his music, Bowie set the stage for future artists who struggled with how they wanted to represent themselves and broke down barriers for them.
Bowie was a trailblazer for those who struggled to express themselves freely in a society that constantly discriminated and looked down upon those who they deemed to be ‘different.’ Even before he began his career as a professional musician, Bowie was an outspoken advocate of free expression. In 1964, a 17-year-old Bowie appeared on BBC’s Tonight as a representative for an organization he founded, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men. He and other men he knew who wore their hair long were facing harassment in their everyday lives, and Bowie was brave enough to appear on television and speak about the issue.
Bowie became an icon of androgynous style, frequently rocking outfits that blurred the line between what would be considered men or women’s clothing. The album cover of his third studio album, The Man Who Sold The World, released in 1970, features Bowie laying on a couch clad in a long, silk dress with his hand poised above his head. This was one of the first occasions Bowie challenged conventional style expectations, and just the beginning for his constantly evolving form of self-expression.
The Berlin Trilogy
Another admirable quality about Bowie was his resilience in the face of the hardships he met and overcame over the course of his career. He was no stranger to the self-destructive lifestyle many rock stars find themselves living as the stresses of fame take their toll. One of Bowie’s most iconic personas, The Thin White Duke, came about around the time of his 10th album’s release, Station to Station, which was released in 1976. This character has been inextricably linked to this tumultuous era in his career. It was also around this time that Bowie’s personal life had begun to fall apart due to his addiction to cocaine. Substance use had debilitated him emotionally and physically, and his condition was made clear to the public after an interview on British television that was in support of the album’s release and subsequent tour. This tour was filled with further controversy, and ultimately ended with Bowie’s decision to move to West Berlin and kick his destructive drug habit.
The move to Berlin would prove to be incredibly beneficial to Bowie, who was extremely interested in the music scene which was blossoming in Germany at the time. Bowie’s time living and writing music in Berlin brought about one of his most iconic eras’, recognized by the release of three albums known as the “Berlin Trilogy,” and displayed his musical innovation through the experimentation he did. During his time in Berlin, he started collaborating with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti, two innovators who are recognized as musical pioneers in their own regards. It was also around this time that Bowie worked with Iggy Pop in France on Pop’s solo debut album The Idiot and its follow up Lust for Life. Bowie and Pop had moved to West Berlin in order to kick their addictions, thinking that by moving in together they would be able to keep each other in check.
The three albums mentioned previously, known as the Berlin Trilogy, consisted of Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger. Low, released in January of 1977, displayed the influence the Berlin music scene had on the direction Bowie wanted to take his sound. The album was heavily influenced by krautrock, which was pioneered by bands like Kraftwerk and Neu! and featured the use of electronic instruments and ambient styles. It also signaled a shift in Bowie’s narration of his albums, straying away from the style of lyricism he had used in his previous albums and utilizing lyrics in an avant-garde way, making them less prominent and using them more sparsely. The second side of the album featured a number of instrumental tracks, a first for Bowie at the time. Another notable innovation from Low is the drum sound, which was crafted using an Eventide H910 Harmonizer, the world’s first digital effects processor. This state-of-the-art piece of equipment, “f—ck[ed] with the fabric of time,” according to Tony Visconti. This drum sound was imitated by countless artists in the years following the album’s release.
When Bowie brought Low to his label RCA Records, they were taken aback by what they heard. They feared it would be a commercial failure and delayed its release, neglecting to promote it properly. While Low was initially met with heavy criticism by the press, it was recognized in the decades after its release for its innovation and is considered to be ahead of its time. Despite the criticism, the release was still a commercial success, reaching number two on the UK Albums chart and number eleven on the US Billboard chart. The sound of Low was highly influential for the post-punk movement, inspiring the sounds of bands like Joy Division, who actually formed between the release of the albums Low and Iggy Pop’s The Idiot.
“Heroes”, the second album of what Bowie called his “triptych,” was released in October of 1977. It followed up and expanded on the experimentation done with ambient styles and electronic elements on Low. The album also carried over a similar structure, with the first side featuring more typical tracks and the second side featuring instrumentals. However, while it used similar styles and structures as Low, the sound and lyrical attitude of “Heroes” was noticeably more positive than its predecessor. It also featured rock and pop elements to a greater extent than the slightly more experimental Low. Perhaps this was a reflection of Bowie’s returning good health and recovery from his drug addiction. Joining Bowie, Eno, and Visconti in the creation of the album were the same musicians that comprised the personnel of Low, as well as King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp.
In the year following the release of “Heroes”, Bowie embarked on a world tour which he spent the majority of the year sharing the music of the first two albums of the Berlin trilogy with nearly a million people. The tour included 70 shows throughout 12 different countries.The final piece of the trilogy, Lodger, was released in 1979 and purposely strayed away from the ambient, minimalist qualities of Low and “Heroes”. It channeled the pop and rock elements of Bowie’s earlier releases, but also delved into a wide variety of other styles including new wave, middle eastern music, and reggae.
Off all of the Berlin albums, “Heroes” is generally considered to be the best-received, although over the years Low has been deemed the most ground-breaking and innovative due to the experimentation conducted by Bowie with the help of Visconti and Eno. These albums have gone down as the definite David Bowie albums, with Bowie himself saying that his Berlin albums were part of his “DNA.”
Like those albums were a part of Bowie’s DNA, Bowie is a part of rock and popular music’s DNA, a statement which can’t be denied. While he may be gone from this world, The Man Who Fell to Earth’s influence is still present in today’s music, discourse on sexuality, gender and identity, and culture itself.
Through his music and other creative endeavors, Bowie broke down barriers for future artists who no longer had to feel restricted in expressing their true selves in their music and appearance. His influence was present in musical movements across the past six decades, inspiring artists ranging from anywhere between The Cure’s Robert Smith and Kanye West.
Even in the face of death, withering under the weight of cancer, Bowie was still creating. His final album, Blackstar, was intended as a “parting gift” for fans, according to Tony Visconti. It was released two days before his death. Fans didn’t know this at the time, as Bowie had kept his illness and terminal diagnosis from the public. In the music video for “Lazarus,” the second single from the album, Bowie is seen in a hospital laying on a deathbed. Like Bowie had created his iconic characters like Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane to cope with his feelings of alienation, he created this final album to ease his passage to the other side.
There could truly be no better way to cap off such an amazing life that left such a prolific legacy. The world of music lost a giant with the passing of David Bowie, a figure that shaped popular music as we know it today.