On Jan. 10, David Robert Jones died of cancer at the age of 69.
As one of the most influential pop culture artists of the last 50 years, only The Beatles and Elvis Presley surpassed Jonesknown as David Bowiein importance.
As praise poured in from all quarters, what remains is not the question of his importance as an artist but as an historical figure. David Bowie was never merely a rock star, though he shrewdly used the medium as a means to a much larger end.. Unlike Madonna, Lady Gaga, Boy George, and a host of others, Bowie's constant shifts in musical and visual styles were based on a literacy unheard of before or since his debut in 1967. No matter what you thought of him, you couldn't deny that he made popular music much more then mere entertainment.
When his first hit single, "Space Oddity," broke in 1969, it revealed a subject he would return to constantly: the plight of the outsider. The irony of Major Tom, the hero of that song, was that he was exactly thata revered hero ( the ultimate insider ) who wound up lost in space ( on the outside ).
It is hardly a mystery that much of Bowie's music, in time, became celebrated, regardless of how it fared commercially since it was always focused on the major topics of the modern agethe failure of human communication, social disconnection and the probability of civilization's collapse as a result. ( His early single, "Changes," barely dented the Billboard Hot 100 when it came out in 1971; yet legions of fans of all ages have turned it into an anthem. ) One of Bowie's major talents was to take reality and turn it into entertainment on a grand scaleand to do it without his audience realizing that it was getting some substance with all the glitter.
His first alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, was such an outsider ( a queer spaceman? ) that Bowie had a hard time living him down. Stardust may have come from Mars, but his violently blunt androgyny, blatant queer aroma and some of the most potent rock 'n' roll to hit the airwaves freaked out church-going America.
Then Bowie had to go on about his bisexuality, which was certainly not what the public of 1972 wanted to hear. Looking back, that admission was overkill ( the image of Stardust kneeling before bandmate Mick Ronson on stage and fellating his guitar got the message across ), but he did the LGBTQ community a huge favor. Stardust was the first militantly queer artist to reach a huge audience and, although there was no way he could stand as a beacon for gay rights or assimilation, he opened closet doors for the likes of Neil Tenant, Andy Bell, Marc Almond, Prince, Michael Jackson, Tim Curry, Marilyn Manson, Boy George and a host of others. The sight of Stardust also sent a message; it was perfectly cool to celebrate your inner freak and straight boys and girls were just as fascinated by him and his menagerie ( Iggy Pop and Lou Reed ) as gays and lesbians.
After the follow ups to Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars ( 1972, RCA ), Aladdin Sane and Pin Ups ( 1973, RCA ), Bowie shocked his audience and changed the entertainment industry by abruptly changing his look, sound and direction. Having failed to acquire the rights to George Orwell's 1984, he defied the author's widow and recorded it as Diamond Dogs ( 1974, RCA ). With the aid of choreographer Toni Basil and $250,000, he staged an apocalyptic stage show featuring mime, dancers, catwalks and an elaborate stage set that came tumbling down at the finish. After a few shows on the tour, Bowie scrapped everything and opted for a lean, cool soul approach.
When the "plastic soul" album Young Americans ( RCA, 1975 ) dropped, it was met coolly by the press ( "A fucked-up album from a fucked-up rock star," screamed one review ) but then "Fame" hit, the public turned the album into a million-seller and Bowie was hotter then ever.
If the sight of milk-white Bowie shaking it on Soul Train seemed like a shocker, his next incarnation went further: the uber-chilly and clearly hetero Thin White Duke. Not only did Bowie mimic Frank Sinatra but through "Fascination" and "Golden Years," he embraced and expanded on masculine Black soul and doo-wop.
The shifts and experiments with new styles and sounds kept coming musically ( drum 'n' bass, art rock, funk, radio pop, big band disco, metal ), visually ( his pioneering of video as an art form and using his face and body as a canvas ) and aesthetically ( a long film career working with directors as varied as David Lynch, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese and Julian Temple ). Moreover, the list of musical collaborators would be endless in itself ( John Lennon, Luthor Vandross, Brian Eno, Tina Turner, Annie Lennox, Queen, Bing Crosby, Ricky Gervais, Trent Rezner, Robert Fripp, etc. ).
All of these accomplishments were in the service of that one messagethe desire for connection and belonging despite barriers of color, gender, sexuality and social standing. It is right up front in the film The Man Who Fell to Earth ( 1976 ) and much of his music: "Can You Hear Me?," "Let's Dance," "Scream Like A Baby," "Heroes," "Tonight," "Stay," "Under Pressure," "I'm Afraid of Americans," "Look Back in Anger" and countless others.
Bowie's point always seemed to be one of humanism and hope, regardless of how he wrapped it. With his adoption of new faces, styles, art forms and mastery of mediaalong with a refusal to condescend to his publiche managed to reach more people on the planet and bring them closer together.
Does this explain Bowie and why he meant so much to not just the LGBTQ community but the world? Maybe/maybe not, but you do have to admit that it is a starting point to consider.