Personalities | David Bowie | An Overview

Young mod. Hairy hippie. Ziggy Stardust. Aladdin Sane. Halloween Jack. The Thin White Duke. Plastic Soulman. Godfather of the New Romantics. Tin Machinist.

Across the course of his four decades-plus career, David Bowie (1947–2016) adopted more personas and musical genres than just about any other musical icon. He viewed his music and public profile as intertwined, at one point having a different image for each new album. By wrapping himself in artifice, he not only brought to pop a new theatricality but he also kept the world intrigued and waiting for the next instalment of his glittering career.

Not Just A Pretty Face

Sometimes lost in all of this was the fact of Bowie’s vast musical talents. Throughout the 1970s, at a point where many people had assumed rock had been taken as far as it could go, he broadened the medium’s parameters with a sequence of ground-breaking albums. The Man Who Sold The World (1970) was that contradiction: intellectual heavy metal. Hunky Dory (1971) was a jaw-droppingly skilful and diverse display of alternative songwriting. Ziggy Stardust (1972) was a blatant tilt for mainstream success whose cynicism could not blunt its brilliance. Aladdin Sane (1973) spat in the face of his new teen idol status with profanities, sexual explicitness and discordant piano. Young Americans (1975) saw him become a soul man, although his soul was typically of a deliberately arch style. Station To Station (1976) found him taking pop into epic, elegant pastures. Then there was the Berlin Trilogy of Low (1977), “Heroes” (1977) and Lodger (1979), in which he spurned anything resembling the commercial with electronic and ambient experimentalism.

The artistic trajectory described here was a rollercoaster ride, the type of which is rarely embarked upon by recording artists because, by definition, comprehensively overhauling your sound runs the risk of turning off your original fans. Bowie caused his devotees to confront their reasons for buying his product over and over again. Each time, he emerged unscathed – indeed, triumphant – as his fanbase learned to love and expect his reinventions.

Low Points

This is not to say that Bowie did not have career troughs. His surrendering to fashionable empty gloss on Let’s Dance (1983) and Tonight (1984) in the Eighties was financially savvy but lost him fans who could forgive any career direction except pedestrianism. Meanwhile, his sublimation of himself into the group Tin Machine in the late Eighties/early Nineties was an act of self-sacrifice and daring rendered pointless by the ensemble’s mediocrity.

Yet, ever the contrarian, Bowie refused to let this become the narrative of the long artistic decline of the likes of The Who or The Rolling Stones: at a point where many had given up on him, he hauled himself back to artistic credibility with a series of albums that showed that he alone of his generation of artists was interested in embracing musical forms that had not existed when he made his first record.

Back With A Bang

It was...

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