David Bowie: How he changed music, fashion and tech
When musician and pop idol David Bowie died from complications related to cancer on Jan. 10, 2016, the world exploded with tributes and chatter about Blackstar, the album released two days before his death. Despite his flamboyant stage personality and boldness in music and fashion, the 69-year-old singer kept his private life private. That included his battle with cancer. The only changes that the public saw in Bowie's life were the ones he chose to reveal — with a penchant for artistic flair.
Bowie's career thrived in part because of his gift for reinvention. Even Baby Boomers alive during the height of Bowie's fame probably can't remember all his personae and musical styles. Flavorwire defined the artist's 12 phases as the whimsical singer/songwriter, the man who sold the world, Ziggy Stardust (the most iconic of them all), Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, The Man Who Fell to Earth (he played a humanoid alien in the film), Pierrot, Jareth the Goblin King of Labyrinth lore, "the regular dude with a regular dude band" aka Tin Machine, "the outsider" (with the making and release of Earthling and Outside), "the elder statesman" (après heart attack) and Meta-Bowie.
Since the artist's death, the Bowie tributes have poured in, with plenty still to come for sure. In April, music influencers put on a memorial concert at Radio City Music Hall in New York; a David Bowie mural in Brixton, London, became not only a shrine to thousands of fans in the early days following the artist's death, but a protected landmark; and the two-CD compilation album, Bowie Legacy, was released via Parlophone records on Nov. 11. The first 24 hours following his death saw 4.3 million Bowie-related tweets.
These tributes serve as evidence that Bowie wasn't merely a career changeling. His creative risks had an impact not just on other people, but entire industries. Bowie left a legacy in music, fashion, and tech. Here's a quick look at his influence in these fields.
When Bowie died, musicians spanning all genres from Bruce Springsteen to Kanye West, paid their respects on social media. They didn't just mourn the loss of a legend; many thanked Bowie for inspiring them as musicians.
Maybe that's what nudged Billboard writer Joe Lynch to credit Bowie for influencing more musical genres than any other rock star in history. (Yes, even Paul McCartney.) He cited the artist's obvious significance in glam rock, but Lynch also pointed out how Bowie changed folk with "Space Oddity" and songs on his albums Hunky Dory and The Man Who Sold the World. He listed further examples in hard rock, industrial rock, grunge, electronica, pop music, indie music, punk, even hip-hop and R&B. Even if Bowie didn't directly impact jazz and country, Lynch pointed out that he worked with numerous jazz musicians, including Pat Metheny.
Intellectual arguments aside, there are the raw numbers: Bowie's Billboard history spanned 40 years. His first hit single on the Billboard Hot 100 chart came with "Changes" (1972), while his biggest single on the Hot 100 was "Let's Dance" (1983). In second place for his Hot 100 hits was "Fame" (1975), his first-ever chart-topper. His final top 10 single on the Hot 100 was Martha and the Vandellas' "Dancing In the Street" (1985), which he covered with Mick Jagger as a fundraiser for Live Aid. Following his death, Billboard ranked the artist's top 20 biggest Hot 100 hits.
Bowie designed entire worlds and devised backstories for his onstage personae, and fashion was always a crucial element. His beloved Ziggy Stardust character may be the most memorable example, but this was true for his entire roster. Bowie's fashion choices reminded us that it's OK to be a weirdo, to embrace our idiosyncrasies, whether that means drawing a lightning bolt on your face or experimenting with gender-bending looks. Being different, even outlandish, is not a crime. It may even be a virtue, or at least cause for celebration.
Unsurprisingly, Ella Alexander of Vogue crowned Bowie "fashion's king of self-invention." What is surprising is how eerily close to Bowie's death this declaration came. On Jan. 7, Alexander wrote, "Bowie changed his style more dramatically than any other musician in history. His transformations brought about seismic cultural shifts, changing the definition of what it meant to be a popular rock star." She went on to say that Bowie wielded fashion as a "powerful tool in communicating individuality."
It's not just fashion critics making these observations. Fashion designers agree. Take the designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, the industry's self-appointed enfant terrible.
"[Bowie] inspired me by his creativity, his extravagance, his sense of fashion that he was constantly reinventing, by his allure, his elegance, and his androgyny," Gaultier told the Hollywood Reporter.
Bowie even left his mark on technology. In a piece for U.K. marketing and media magazine Campaign, Mel Exon, managing editor of BBH and co-founder of BBH Labs, referenced an interview Bowie did with Jeremy Paxman in 1999. As Exon tells it, Bowie had such a strong grasp of how mass communication and technology go hand in hand that he prefaced the modern Internet well before it existed in its current incarnation. She pulled out this passage:
[In the past] music had a call to arms to change things, now it's a career opportunity. The Internet now carries the flag for being subversive..chaotic...There is a new demystification progress gong on between the artist and the audience [because of the Internet.
Bowie went on to talk about the ideas we now know as interactivity and user engagement:
The idea is that the piece of work is not finished until the audience come to it and add their own interpretation...what a piece of art is about is the grey space in the middle. That...is what the 21st century is going to be all about.
Indeed, user engagement is key to today's internet. Social media engagement is a perfect example. Because of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and other platforms, internet users constantly have the opportunity to respond to artists' work and even create new creative work in formulating that response. Even just looking at GIFs: Giphy.com alone currently has nearly 6,000 David Bowie-related GIFs. The Goblin King likely wouldn't be too startled about that. It goes back to what he said about the audience coming to art and adding to it.
Rest in peace, David Bowie. Here's to one year in a world without you in the flesh, but certainly still present in creative spirit.