Music celebrates in equal measure both the conformist and nonconformist. What can you say about an art form that gives us both Gershwin and Glass, Adele and Tori Amos, Pet Shop Boys and Portishead? You can’t do much but shrug and enjoy the diversity.
Ultimately, though, the nonconformists wield the greatest impact, inspiring and influencing their successors. David Bowie is perhaps the epitome of the influential nonconformist in popular music. The flood of tributes since his death on January 10 celebrate him as much for his impact on musicians as for his chameleonic alien persona.
They’re not wrong.
An alien approach
Bowie’s career got off to a slow start in the late 1960s. His androgynous appearance and penchant for wearing women’s clothes tended to put people off — not surprising, given the homophobia of the era. It wasn’t until he initiated his first major change of style and appearance, perfecting his otherworldly alter ego Ziggy Stardust, that he began to connect: The science fiction elements that permeated his music also struck a chord with audiences caught up in the romance of the early days of space exploration.
This is when I first encountered Bowie and his music. I was a science fiction fan when that branded you an outsider. The alien vistas conjured by “Space Oddity” and “Starman” were immensely appealing. Ziggy Stardust’s strange, androgynous appearance also held a strong fascination for a teenager just beginning to realize how different he was in other ways — Bowie seemed like a proud outsider who embraced his outsider status. For me, as for most teenagers, music played a crucial role in building an identity. Along with other “otherworldly outsiders” like the Moody Blues and Pink Floyd, David Bowie played an important part in my early search for self.
Bowie was a restless artist, though, and after several years of playing variations on the Ziggy Stardust theme, he segued into the Thin White Duke, with such hits as “Fame” and “Heroes.” It was also his period of seriously rampant cocaine abuse.
A serious artist, again
But Bowie changed again, becoming a serious artist and releasing such groundbreaking albums as Low and Station to Station. This was perhaps some of his most influential work, mature yet innovative. It was certainly some of my favorite of his work. It was like he was trailblazing a new musical landscape and daring us to follow him, if our sensibilities were adventurous enough.
During this period, Bowie began downplaying his bisexuality, a move that contributed to his burgeoning commercial success. His gay fans hadn’t taken his first marriage seriously, but after ditching the regrettable Angie in 1980, he married classy supermodel Iman in 1992; this relationship lasted for the rest of his life. Bowie told Rolling Stone he had been a “closet heterosexual” the whole time. It didn’t seem to bother his gay fans because he never disavowed his earlier bisexual lifestyle or treated it like it had been a mistake or something to be ashamed of.
Besides, he kept shamelessly teasing us with things like his flirtatious friendship with Mick Jagger.
In the mid '80s, Bowie enjoyed his greatest commerical success with the Let's Dance album. Bowie himself, in later years, was openly dismissive of this era as his least significant artistically, saying his intent then was simply to write hits and make boatloads of money. He certainly accomplished that. He followed it up by turning his back on commercialism, spending an extended period on experimentation. He was the front man for Tin Machine from 1989 to 1993 and also began a fruitful collaboration with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. He then dropped out of sight for a while, resurfacing only recently with the excellent return-to-form album The Next Day (2013), which was successful both critically and commercially.
After that came his battle with cancer. A battle he lost.
An interesting future
I never lost my admiration for David Bowie, and I never stopped identifying with his music, which remained creative and groundbreaking throughout. His public persona never lost its ethereal and otherworldly edge. To the end, he remained someone that those who consider ourselves outsiders could look to and think there might be a bright future for us — or at least an interesting one.
Thanks to David Bowie, I will always feel that Major Tom is watching over me, waiting for me to join him for an eternity of adventure among the vast expanse of stars above.