Bowie: chameleon, banker, videogamer, genius

Life on Mars: Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, in the early 1970s.

Celebs, writers, world leaders, ordinary fans: the world has come together to mourn David Bowie’s death. What made him so great? Was he a brilliant artist — or is the truth more complicated?

Q: What do David Cameron, Kanye West, Sunderland AFC and the German Foreign Ministry have in common?

A: They have all paid tribute to David Bowie in the last 24 hours — alongside thousands of others.

Even for a rock star, the reaction was extraordinary. Following Bowie’s death from cancer on Sunday, the world took to social media to grieve.

Celebrities, politicians and journalists competed to pay the artist the biggest compliment. Pharrell Williams called him ‘a true creative’; drummer Roger Taylor described him as ‘the cleverest man of our time’. The word ‘genius’ came up time and again.

Pinning down exactly what made him so brilliant was less straightforward. Some acclaimed his songwriting skills, or the hugely influential albums he made in the 1970s. Others focused on his striking fashion sense and eclectic musical style. Many spoke of how he set an example for society by blurring the line between male and female, straight and gay.

After breaking out with his 1969 hit Space Oddity, a dreamy song about an astronaut who gets lost in space, Bowie went on to dominate the 1970s. This is when his ability to reinvent himself became obvious: he dabbled in poetic ballads, glam rock, American funk and German electro, and adopted various personas for his live shows.

Although his creative energy waned from the mid-1980s, Bowie kept himself in the limelight with various attention-grabbing ventures. In 1996, he became the first major artist ever to release a song as an online-only download. Four years later he launched a bank, issuing credit cards with his face on them. He even worked on a video game that featured him as a character.

Throughout his career, Bowie kept up with the times. He was not just artistically gifted. He also had a knack for surfing trends — hence the changes in style, the experiments with new technology. It is fitting that he was loved by so many, for — as fans have pointed out — he understood that an artist needs an audience, and knew better than anyone how to find one.

Art for art’s sake?

The costumes, the songs, the voice: Bowie’s genius was in his creativity, say some. In an age of dreary pop acts, he was a rare musician who could marry intelligent lyrics to a beautiful tune. His constant shifts in style prove this: like a true artist, he never rested on his laurels.

True enough, comes the reply — but there were others with his talent who never found his fame. What set Bowie apart was his talent for marketing himself. Like Jay-Z or Kanye, he was good at playing the media, at controlling and selling his own image. All those self-reinventions? No different to releasing new versions of the iPod.

You Decide

  1. Who is your favourite music act? What do you think they do well?
  2. Is it disrespectful to criticise a public figure straight after their death?

Activities

  1. Take a look at the image gallery Bowie: A life in pictures (included in ‘Become An Expert’). Which of his styles do you like the most? Explain your choice to the class.
  2. Choose a deceased artist — musician or otherwise — whom you admire. Write a 300-word tribute to that person, explaining their importance to the art world.

Some People Say...

“Good business is the best art.”

Andy Warhol

What do you think?

Q & A

If Bowie’s career peaked in the 1970s, why are people still so obsessed with him?
One reason is that his influence on music (and fashion) can still be felt today. Without his chameleon-like style, we wouldn’t have had Lady Gaga or Florence and the Machine. Without his intelligent and difficult lyrics, no The Smiths or Radiohead. Without his instinct for marketing, no Jay-Z.
But is his music worth listening to?
In the 1970s, when he was at the peak of his powers, he wrote some timeless tracks — Life on Mars , for one, was recently voted the best song of all time by The Telegraph. His records offer a fascinating snapshot of the periods they were written in (as well as some massive tunes). Even his most recent album Blackstar, released two days before his death, was well received by critics.

Word Watch

Blurring the line
Throughout the 1970s, David Bowie’s sexuality and gender fluctuated. He came out as gay in 1972, then later declared himself bisexual, then straight. Though a man, he often dressed up in effeminate clothing. At the time, few people were doing any of this, which made him a role model. Many fans now thank Bowie for inspiring them to accept their own homosexuality, or realise that it’s ok to cross-dress.
Dabbled
Experimented in. Perhaps as Bowie put it in one of his songs — ‘turn and face the strange changes’ ( Changes).
Personas
A persona is a role or character created for a narrative to be related or acted out in public. In his career, Bowie came up with several for himself, each of which had its own costumes, make-up and musical style. The most famous is Ziggy Stardust, a rock star who can communicate with aliens.
Waned
Decreased.
Ventures
Business projects.
Laurels
A laurel is a crown of bay leaves traditionally offered as a mark of honour. ‘To rest on one’s laurels’ means ‘to be satisfied with what one has achieved, and make no further effort’.