Starman ascends: why the legend of David Bowie will never die
Celebrity deaths are strange. A public outpouring of grief for the loss of an individual that most never met and knew only through their public persona can be an occasion for mass reflection and collective solidarity. They can also become divisive circuses, leaving those who don't share in the grief feeling detached and indifferent. But this is different. This is bigger than that. David Bowie was one of the defining artistic voices of our time.
There is no other artist whose life and work has had a greater or more pervasive impact across countless approaches to creativity. A perennially adored performer whose work is ubiquitous amongst multiple generations - Bowie unites and unifies us. He was the consummate outsider who somehow managed to turn art into pop, mining the underground for mainstream success. He wrote and rewrote the zeitgeist time after time. He taught us what it was to be an artist in the late twentieth century and well into the twenty-first. His death is the most important loss to popular music and pop culture so far this millenium.
No other artist of our time has had a career spanning fifty years encompassing so many creative peaks across so many genres of music as well as film and theatre, fashion, music videos and web-based communication. He influenced generations of artists and went on to inspire the artists that they had influenced. It makes sense then, that this creative giant was also ultimately of and for our time: a truly post-modern creature who defined artistic reinvention, shape-shifting from spaceman to androgynous alien to white soul sophisticate; from fragile paranoiac to Goblin king; from mainstream megastar to rock revisionist, and from outlands wanderer to transcendent creative god.
It seems both unlikely and ultimately fitting that such a creative force was constantly capable of embracing a multitude of platforms at their cutting edge. Bowie was an early adopter - he knew not only how to harness new ideas for creative and commercial ends but he fundamentally understood how and why they mattered - their impact on audiences and culture more broadly. He harnessed new ideas (music video, CD-Rom, the internet) alongside politics (personal, ideological, sexual), and fused them through an incisive point of view that was steeped in fashion - its love of the conceptual and the avant-garde, its need to push boundaries, and its reverence for aesthetic pleasure.
But Bowie wasn't some bohemian ideologue - well, not always - he was also an astute capitalist. Like some inverse of Thomas Newton, his stranded alien from The Man Who Fell To Earth who launches a global empire only to retire to make pop music, in 1998 - around the time that he created BowieNet he also created BowieBanc, with his face emblazoned on checkbooks and ATM cards. His cult lies in the concept of what it is to be an artist, whether the means to that end are through charisma, creativity or commerce.
Musically, Bowie was inherently a collaborator and a curator. So many of the defining moments of his greatest songs are shared with others, be it Mick Ronson's guitar on Ziggy Stardust, Mike Garson's piano on 'Aladdin Sane', or Brian Eno's indelible mark all over the Berlin trilogy. Even Blackstar, the album he released last Friday on his 69th birthday is almost as much a collaboration with jazz combo the Donny McCaslin Quartet as it is the work of a visionary rock god. Almost.
The fact that Tony Visconti has produced so many of his twenty-five albums, many of which happen to be amongst his best, is no coincidence - feeding off of collaboration the same way he fed off of ideas. Then there are the songwriting collaborations with John Lennon, Queen and Mick Jagger, which saw him ascend to the heights of rock'n'roll superstardom as much through the his ability to leverage off of these exciting collaborations as through the power of the music itself. There's that knack for the zeitgeist again.
It wasn't all genius. Whilst everyone has a different favourite Bowie, nobody can deny that his career featured more than a few creative missteps and critical nadirs. But when an idea stopped working, or didn't work at all, he kept moving, continued evolving and drew from the new. He used whatever was at hand, be it soul and R&B, krautrock, punk and post-punk, glossy pop, drum 'n' bass or leftfield electronica - a genre that ironically he had helped to define decades earlier. There's a tidy completeness to that cycle of influence. Bowie was never far from the centre of it.
What sustained it all perhaps, what drew together so many disparate musical styles and creative approaches across multiple platforms under the banner of a singular body of work was his undeniable charisma. Intelligent, weird, charming, uncompromising, cheeky at times. Whether as Ziggy in kabuki flair, dapper plastic soul tux, Goblin king wig and jodhpurs or tattered Union Jack coat, his style and his buoyant charm was what hooked us, what forced us to pay attention, what lured us towards this otherworldly gift. He has left ours, and things will never be the same.
Farewell, wherever it is you're heading now.
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