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Essay: David Bowie

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  • Subject area(s): Music Essays
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  • Published: September 26, 2021*
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  • David Bowie
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Over the many years of David Bowie’s astounding career, he has inspired millions of people with his eccentric style and dramatic music transformations. Bowie’s strong art sensibility helped make his music and live performances extremely visual and artistic. He is celebrated for blurring genres and opening minds around the globe and he has influenced more music genres then any other musician.

Born and raised in south london,Bowie’s interest in music started at 13 years old, where he learned to play the saxophone during high school. He started working with many different bands such as “The manish boys,The king bees and The konrads” to fulfill his love for the music. Being in these bands gave david bowie the introduction he needed into the world of Pop and Mod music. After working in these bands with little to no success, David robert jones began his solo career as David Bowie in 1966. Bowie went on to release three singles under the label pye records but still gained no success from this release. It was in 1969 that he signed with mercury records and released his astonishing debut album Man of words,Man of music.The album was set to be called “David Bowie” but was the changed as Bowie wanted to pay homage to all the influences he gained from the london music scene. The lead single off the album “Space oddity” gained Bowie huge success in the charts and peaked at number 5 in the UK. The song was written about a fictional astronaut “Major Tom” who becomes depressed during an outer space mission. This became the first of many of Bowie’s different personas. The track was released to correspond with the apollo 11 moon landing and the BBC featured it in the television coverage of the Lunar landing. Releasing this song as a single was a huge milestone in Bowie’s career and gained him many fans and popularity within the music industry at the time. To this day many people state that “Space Oddity” is one of the best written songs of all time.

Bowie had a wide taste of music interests that he bought into the rock music that he was making. He set the wave for popular dance music on his collaboration with Nile Rodgers “Let’s Dance” which hit number 1 on the US charts and he often morphed and mixed genres together to create his art. Bowie revealed some of his musical influences include John Lennon, Florence Foster Jenkins and Jazz musician John Coltrane. Bowie’s influence was definitely present across all genres at different points in music throughout the years. His music hasn’t just influenced pop, rock, electronic, indie and R&B music, many hip-hop artists have also sampled bowie’s music including artists such as Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Tribe Called Quest, P. Diddy, and Jay Z.

Popular Hip Hop artist Kanye West tweeted after Bowie’s death,

”David Bowie was one of my most important inspirations, so fearless, so creative, he gave us magic for a lifetime.”(Kanye West 2016)

He helped a generation of LGBTQ artists find their voice in music and survive in a society that was often not as accepting of the LGBT community as we are today.

Bowie also called out MTV music in 1983 for not airing black artists videos on the popular music station. He then hit yet another milestone in his career when considered the first major artist to embrace technology and distribute his own work online. He sold 300,000 copies of his song ‘telling lies’ on the internet.

David Bowie has also had a huge influence on fashion and all throughout his career has had many different personas that took the fashion industry by storm. Bowie’s eccentric style was his way of projecting self expression into his art and live performances and although he was able to change his style alot, he was always distinctly himself whilst doing so. Bowie started a lot of trends within the fashion industry including the androgynous look, vibrant makeup, tight costumes and eye patches. Many fashion designers have been inspired by the style of Bowie and created runway shows and fashion pieces in tribute to Bowie’s visual art. These include designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Hedi Slimane and Raf Simons. Bowie’s style was beyond gender and he was never afraid to break boundaries between masculinity and femininity.
Ziggy Stardust is one of Bowie’s most notable personas that he created. Similar to his first persona he created “Major Tom”, He described “Ziggy” as a starman sent down from space to save planet earth. Ziggy stardust had an incredible style and a lot of his costumes featured an androgynous look with bright orange hair, eccentric makeup and knee high boots. Bowie spent months crafting his art as Ziggy and worked extremely hard on costumes and artwork for his album “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars”. Bowie often said that he wanted to change the music industry with Ziggy and he experimented with sounds and style that musicians at the time had never done before. The ziggy persona in particular was very appealing to teenage audiences at the time as he was not afraid to be himself. This inspired many teenagers who were determining who they were and what they wanted to be. Although the persona of Ziggy Stardust was a huge credit to Bowie’s career and inspired thousands of people, it began taking a toll on Bowie. “At first, I just assumed that character onstage,” he said. “Then everybody started to treat me as they treated Ziggy: as though I were the Next Big Thing, as though I moved masses of people. I became convinced I was a messiah. Very scary. I woke up fairly quickly.”(David Bowie playboy magazine 1976) It was in the summer of 1973 at a filmed concert that bowie made the proclamation that he would no longer be playing the act of Ziggy Stardust. He confirmed in an NME interview that from then on he would be concentrating on various activities that have very little to do with rock and pop.

The Thin White Duke is undoubtedly one of Bowie’s darkest transformations. Completely opposite to his previous persona, The thin white duke was often styled in a three piece black suit along with thick slicked back hair. He portrayed this persona from 1975-1976 when he moved to LA. Alongside this new look came strong fascist views from Bowie and many described this time in Bowie’s career as a downward spiral. He sustained himself on a diet of milk, peppers and cocaine and gained lots of controversy around this time. He was not afraid to spill his strong fascist views during his cocaine fueled interviews and even praised hitler during an interview, stating that he was “One of the first rock stars”. Lots of confusion began with fans and people couldn’t tell what was David Bowie and what was The Thin White duke. Bowie describes this persona as “A would-be romantic with absolutely no emotion at all but who spouted a lot of neo-romance”. Later in life bowie went on to refer to this period as the darkest time of his life and explained that the Thin White Duke was a nasty character, however this character was responsible for some of Bowie’s best music in his career. It was in 1976 that Bowie left LA on friend “iggy Pop’s” advice and completely rid of The Thin White Duke persona.

Bowie was an extremely visual artist and he often focused on the visual side of things whilst working on his shows,style and music. Mick Woodmansey,The drummer of Bowie’s band, stated that Bowie took the full band to the ballet and theatre and instructed them to watch the lighting instead of the performances. “We got into the practice of creating a show, rather then just making music”, said Woodmansey(1973). Bowie took inspiration from many different things including jungle music, mime, modern art and american rock n roll. Not only was he an extremely talented musician and fashion expert but he was a fantastic painter. In 2016, after he passed away, 3080 of Bowie’s unseen artwork was sold. His pieces mostly consisted of british art but also contained african and expressionist pieces as well,three of which were valued at over 13.3 million dollars. He was deeply influenced by artists such as Andy Warhol,Basquiat and Frank Auerbach. Bowie even wrote a song about artist Andy Warhol and was heavily inspired by the obdurate art rock experimentalism of his group the velvet underground.He stated in a BBC interview that Warhol “wasn’t a real person,but a creation”. Andy Warhol was also a huge inspiration for Bowies created character Ziggy Stardust.

Bowie often had artists he was inspired by create artwork for his albums and even used techniques from other artists to help his writer’s block. If he was ever struggling to write he would often use William Burroughs technique called the cut up method. This method consisted of cutting up and rearranging text to write songs. He would also paint to help guide him through music problems that he was having.
Bowie loved art and had a huge collection that he gathered up over the years. “The only thing i buy addictive is art”, Bowie confessed in a Dick Cavett interview(1974).”Art was, seriously, the only thing I’d ever wanted to own. It has always been for me a stable nourishment. I use it. It can change the way I feel in the mornings. The same work can change me in different ways, depending on what I’m going through.”
Many modern day artists and musicians have drawn inspiration from bowie’s incredible history in music and fashion. His ever changing image and theatricality inspired millions of people across the world. The musician Lady gaga is a great example of someone who has been inspired by the works of Bowie and we see this alot with her eccentric fashion choices,visual art and artistic live shows.In the early days of her career Lady Gaga would often be seen with a lightning bolt painted down her face in tribute to Bowie. “He’s sort of like an alien prince”, she said in a TV interview. “He still runs my universe as well, every morning i wake up and think,what would bowie do?”
(Lady Gaga 2009-alan carr show)

His sci-fi spirit has also inspired artists like janelle monae who david bowie was reportedly a huge fan of before he passed away in january of 2016. Her retro style and pop songs about androids and dystopian futures show the inspiration that david bowie had on monae and her style of writing. After covering Bowie’s 1977 classic ‘heroes’ in 2014, she explained, “Bowie is a part of my musical DNA in so many ways,he is transcendent”.” he is a true time traveler and i think that is a part of who i am and the legacy that i want people to remember, i will never expire,nor will David Bowie”. (Janelle Monae 2014-rolling stones interview)

Singer/songwriter Adam lambert is also heavily inspired by David Bowie and his androgyny and sexuality. Lambert also plays with similar boundaries to Bowie,often wearing vibrant makeup and costumes at his shows.“It was about the androgyny of mixing it up, and that was what was so incredible about his concepts. He was one of the first rock stars to really push the idea that sexuality was not black and white but an exploration”(Adam Lambert interview).

It is clear that David Bowie is a huge icon, not only in the music industry but in fashion art and performing as well. He has inspired millions of people through his ability to stay true to himself at all times throughout his career. He was never afraid of what people might think, never went along with trends and was always an extremely original individual and this is what stood out most about David Bowie.


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