How David Bowie was always culturally ahead of the curve

  • Posed portrait of David Bowie, circa 1965.
  • British singer, actor and musician David Bowie, 1974.
  • Musician David Bowie poses for a portrait in his “Ziggy Stardust” guise in June 1972 in London, England.
  • Singer David Bowie performing on stage as the Thin White Duke on his Station To Station World Tour at the Wembley Empire Pool in London, England in May 1976.
  • David Bowie in concert, circa 1973. He is wearing a mesh outfit with fake hands holding his chest.
  • Musician David Bowie performing onstage during the Diamond Dogs tour in 1974 in Los Angeles, Calif.
  • Singer David Bowie performs on stage during the Ziggy Stardust tour in 1973.
  • David Bowie performs live on stage at Earls Court Arena on May 12, 1973 during the Ziggy Stardust tour.
  • A full length portrait of David Bowie performing on the Dutch TV show TopPop playing the song ‘Rebel Rebel’ and wearing an eye patch on Feb. 7, 1974 in Hilversum, Netherlands.
  • David Bowie poses for a portrait in 1976.
  • Musician David Bowie sits at the console mixing board in a studio in circa 1975.
  • Singer David Bowie wearing a smart hat and sunglasses during the filming of ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ in Los Angeles, 1976.
  • Singer David Bowie posing with a large barking dog while working on the artwork for his 1974 album ‘Diamond Dogs’ in London.
  • David Bowie poses for a portrait in 1976.
  • English singer and actor David Bowie films a scene for the film ‘Absolute Beginners’, directed by Julien Temple, UK, May 1985.
  • David Bowie poses for an RCA publicity shot in 1976.
  • English singer, musician and actor David Bowie in concert, circa 1974.
  • David Bowie (wearing an eyepatch) appears at a press conference at the Amstel Hotel on 7th February 1974 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns)
  • David Bowie, vocal, performs at the Ahoy hal in Rotterdam, the Netherlands on 30th March 1990.
  • A portrait taken on May 13, 1983 shows British singer David Bowie during a press conference at the 36th Cannes Film Festival.

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The late David Bowie will likely be forever remembered as rock music’s greatest chameleon, but what is often overlooked is the fact that his legendary changes often accurately predicted the way both the music industry and the culture at large was moving in the future.

When Bowie exploded onto the music scene in the early ‘70s, there was no one quite like him. He unapologetically embraced bisexuality and a gender-bending public persona that completely upended preexisting notions of what a male rock star should look and sound like. Today, you can draw a direct line to a number of pop stars, regardless of gender, who are marching to the beat of their own drum, much like Bowie did. His iconic personas — some such as, “Ziggy Stardust” and “The Thin White Duke,” coming with their own names — set the stage for Beyoncé’s Sasha Fierce and Garth Brooks’ Chris Gaines.

But that barely scratches the surface of his groundbreaking contributions to popular culture. He was one of the first rock stars to make his mark in film. He put fashion in the forefront in a way none of his peers had prior. He incorporated and promoted black American soul music at a time when it was not fully appreciated as an art form. And Bowie’s early, enthusiastic embrace of the music video format paid off when he became one of MTV’s unlikely first superstars in the early 1980s.

RELATED: Joe: Bowie reinvented himself time and time again

By that time, Bowie had been a dominant superstar in his homeland, the United Kingdom, for years, but his ‘80s hits helped him transition from cult hero to chart-topping American pop star. He came out as straight, and, for many, became the face of glossy Reagan-era rock. But instead of churning out safe, crowd-pleasing hits, Bowie reinvented himself several more times in the ensuing years, embracing electronic music as well as collaborating with artists like Trent Reznor and influencing bands like Arcade Fire, who he championed early in their career. Health problems, including the cancer that he battled for 18 months, slowed down his output but he’d reemerged recently with two critically acclaimed albums that seemed to both look back at past glories and herald those still to come — “The Next Day” and this year’s “Blackstar.”

The loss of Bowie has inspired a massive outpouring of grief in the music community and from fans across all social media platforms. There is something unique and powerful about the death of a musician. Music is so timeless and personal to fans, and Bowie’s followers were often attracted to his perceived outsider status and iconoclastic image. While The Rolling Stones and The Beatles represented a certain kind of mainstream ideal, Bowie was the standard bearer for the unconventional, and one could argue that his blueprint has had more staying power when it comes to modern music. For young people who may be ostracized for being different or weird, Bowie provides a gateway to a world where the so-called strange are worshipped and romanticized. Music fans who are schooled in Bowie basics often then go on to discover the likes of Freddie Mercury, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed.

It seems as though the world has caught up to what Bowie was doing all those years ago. The changes in his look and signature sound are now virtually necessary for artists seeking to stay relevant and maintain their audience. Only Bowie could pull off performing duets with both Mick Jagger and Bing Crosby, and somehow make it all seem effortlessly cool. Only Bowie had the range to be a credible Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” and rock skin-tight pants opposite puppets in the cult classic “Labyrinth.” And Bowie, who has been a force in music for more than five decades, leaves a world he helped shape with a footprint any artist would envy and a final album that is a fitting tribute to a legacy that will stand the test of time.

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