I woke up Monday morning to look at my phone and saw a notification from my New York Times news application. It read something to the effect of “David Bowie, the legendary rock star, has died at 69.” I re-read it to make sure I was not misreading it in my sleepy state, but no. It was definitely referring to The Thin White Duke himself.
I am honestly not affected by every celebrity death I hear about, but I spent nearly the entire day reflecting on Bowie. I drove to work listening to “Hunky Dory” and thinking about how the music world has taken a huge hit.
The interesting thing is that while I definitely consider myself a Bowie fan, I have not yet reached the rank of “super fan.” After having heard a good number of his songs over the years and mostly associating him with his hilarious cameo in “Zoolander,” I only started exploring Bowie’s catalogue during my first semester of college, and I still have a long way to go. Nonetheless, even if I never liked a single Bowie song, I would still owe him a debt of gratitude because a lot of the other music I listen to is very much Bowie-derived.
I think that is true for a lot of people. No matter how small your iPod playlist may be, there is a good chance you listen to at least one artist who was inspired by Bowie on some level. Many acts become popular but do not leave much of a legacy. This is not true of Bowie. He crafted an image that nearly every pop star of the post-MTV era has tried to emulate on some level, and he had perhaps the widest-ranging influence this side of The Beatles. His impact is not limited to one narrow genre but cuts far deeper from the college rock and hair metal bands of the ‘80s to the industrial sound of the ‘90s. Queen, Talking Heads, Prince, Duran Duran, U2, Echo and the Bunnymen, Psychedelic Furs, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, The Cure, Madonna, Lady Gaga, The Killers and The Arcade Fire are just a few of the artists who have emulated Bowie in vocals, style or wardrobe. It is almost an “It’s a Wonderful Life” situation. If Bowie had not existed, many notable performers would not be making music or would sound very different, and we'd be a lot worse for it.
Influence is just part of the story though. Even if Bowie had somehow managed to record without attracting an audience, then he would have left a legacy of excellent music. He projected a sense of charisma into everything he performed and had a vocal style that was unmistakably his, at least until others started copying him. He also worked with great producers and collaborators like Brian Eno and Mick Ronson to develop the glam rock sound he was known for. Whether he was knocking out great guitar-driven songs like “Suffragette City” or “Rebel Rebel” or beautiful melancholy pieces like “Starman” or “Life on Mars,” Bowie’s work in the ‘70s was unmatchable.
Bowie also had a knack for lyrics, whether it was “Space Oddity’s” heartbreaking tale of an astronaut who cuts off communication and floats into space or “Fame’s” biting look at the notion of being a celebrity. Even as Bowie went pop in the ‘80s with hits like “Let’s Dance” or “Modern Love,” he did not sacrifice the things that made him who he was.
Finally, Bowie was cool. He was not concerned over his offbeat outfits or style being perceived as too weird. He existed as someone who appeared to be out of this universe, and with it he opened up the floodgates for countless performers to just be themselves. As sad as it is that Bowie is gone, it almost feels like he will always be around because his influence is never going away. My hope is that others can continue to carry the torch.