What do Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, the Arctic Monkeys and Janelle Monae have in common? Aside from all being musicians and performers, precious little – except for the fact that, in each and every case, they wouldn’t be quite the artists they are without David Bowie. With a career spanning over four decades – that’s FOUR decades of creating and performing original music – David Bowie influenced generations of artists. In addition to the contemporary names mentioned, older performers like Prince, Madonna, U2 and The Smiths name Bowie as a major influence and inspiration.
Meet Ziggy, the shape-shifting earthling who sold the world
When it comes to Bowie’s legacy, we should start by recognizing his radical break with the pop of the past. Musically, but also thematically and stylistically, Bowie shrugged off the conventions of rock music. He was the first popular musician to project completely invented personas in rapid succession. Unlike traditional artists who felt bound to a particular invented persona or stage identity, David Bowie adopted and discarded personas at will. Each one both was and wasn’t him. From The Man Who Sold the World to Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Earthling and beyond, David Bowie personified a series of musical and artistic styles that he defined instead of letting them define him – at least not permanently and certainly not for long. In many ways, this prevented Bowie from falling into the same trap as other musicians like Elvis, Jim Morrison and even The Beatles fell. All struggled with the images and the musical styles fans had come to expect from them. The song “Changes” is Bowie’s manifesto to his own unique survival skill as a popular artist: The art of change.
By always staying one step ahead of his public, Bowie stayed free from their expectations. This kept Bowie the artist fresh year after year, decade after decade. Musically, Bowie was a highly creative force for far longer than nearly any artist before or since. At times incorporating disparate types of music from folk to musical theater and doo-wop, at others inventing entire genres, Bowie was an experimenter and trail blazer. Early 70s glam rock is hard to imagine without Bowie as is the sort of thoughtful cabaret-style pop he mastered. By his example, Bowie gave artists the courage to use any genre or sound in their music without first thinking “But is this pop?” “But is this rock?” or even “Is this me?” From futuristic space travel to transvestism, with Bowie, everything became relevant, everything was interesting. Many successful collaborations bear witness to his openness and endless curiosity as an artist: Marc Bolan, Bing Crosby, Brian Eno, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Freddy Mercury, Tina Turner, Mick Jagger and Arcade Fire are just some of the musicians Bowie worked with.
The door to dreams was closed
In his later years, Bowie dabbled in newer musical genres as in the electronic and drum and bass inspired Earthling from 1997. Many of Bowie projects in the 90s and noughties such as the avant garde Outside, however, were panned. He was accused of being past his prime, of trying too hard to stay relevant. It came, then, as a happy surprise when Bowie reappeared from nearly a decade out of the public gaze with two new albums: The Last Day in 2013 followed by Blackstar in lated 2015. Blackstar in particular met with near universal praise by fans and critics, many of whom compared it favorably to his best work. This praise is all the more valuable considering that most people had no idea he was ill. In other words, Bowie received no pity points for Blackstar. It stood on its own merits, yet when one listens to it now, every song appears in a new light – a parting gift to fans, perhaps. In the song, “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore,” Bowie can be heard to struggle for breath at the beginning but then pours such energy into the piece, he pulls it off and we feel a sense of exhilaration that we imagine he too felt. The lyrics of the title track also appear much more relevant to the man who sang them:
“Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)”
This is not to be morbid. Blackstar is an affirmative album. It’s the work of someone who spent his life creating and who continued right up to the end. And in the Teufel Raumfeld Flagship store, once home to the club Linientreu where Bowie partied during his Berlin years, we’ll be playing it, grateful for this one last work from a great artist.
Title picture: By AVRO (Beeld En Geluid Wiki – Gallerie: Toppop 1974) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons