How David Bowie was always culturally ahead of the curve
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.
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.