- David Bowie Essentials
- 51 Songs
About David Bowie
Back at the height of the Ziggy Stardust era, David Bowie told an interviewer that he’d always felt like a vehicle for something else, even if he could never quite figure out what that something else was. For all the times he changed his getup—the glam alien of Ziggy, the moody existentialist of the late ’70s, the pop sophisticate of the ’80s, and so on—he was, in his way, remarkably consistent, a barometer of where the culture was and a glimpse of where it was going. Gender fluidity, the hybridization of rock and electronic music, the transformative power of the internet: Bowie was never there first per se, but he was always there early, a transformative figure who managed to bring challenging ideas into mainstream culture in a way that felt stylish, digestible, exciting, and most of all possible.
Born David Jones in 1947, Bowie was raised in the suburbs of London, converting to the gospel of rock ’n’ roll after hearing Little Richard. He took a minute to find his creative footing (“The Laughing Gnome”—brace yourself), but by his early twenties he’d become a major force in English pop, exploring themes of alienation (“Space Oddity”), identity (“Changes”), and futurism (“Life On Mars?”) while developing a performance style steeped in everything from mime to kabuki and avant-garde theater—a sense of visual identity that would last him the rest of his career.
For three decades, Bowie rarely took more than a year between albums, exploring chilly, electronic art-rock (Low and the so-called Berlin Trilogy), pop (the early MTV hits Let’s Dance and Tonight), the noisy U-turn of the Tin Machine era, and the quasi-industrial sound of such ’90s albums as Outside and Earthling. As prominent and productive as he was, he became more enigmatic as his career went on, a noble stoic at the outer reaches of pop music. His final two albums, 2013’s The Next Day and 2016’s Blackstar (released two days before his death), were among the grandest—and starkest—of his career.
His final video, for the song “No Plan,” was released posthumously on what would have been his 70th birthday. Bowie doesn’t appear in the clip, at least not live. Instead, we see him in freeze-frame on a TV in the window of a rundown electronics store, just for a few seconds near the very end, a little fuzzy: Not a person, but an image fixed on the screen.
- London, England
- January 8, 1947