Expert comment: The Starman's lasting impact on British musicMonday 11 January 2016
Dr Veronica Skrimsjö, Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in Popular music, reflects on David Bowie's impact on British music and culture.
This morning Britain awoke to the sad news of David Bowie’s death. Despite having stepped out of the public eye many years ago, he has had a continued impact on both culture and society, remaining a somewhat elusive figure ‘just out of reach’ as it were. As recently as 2014 Bowie won a BRIT Award for Best Male Solo Artist and released his final album on January 7th, only days before passing. Just a few hours after his death became public countless high-profile celebrities, politicians and journalists (and an astronaut) have already paid tribute to him, calling him a genius and his work art.
Bowie began his musical career in the 1960s rather unsuccessfully, releasing singles that never made too much of an impact. The release of ‘Space Oddity’ in July 1969 was to change this. The song became a hit in many countries, gained cult status and continues to be referenced throughout popular culture (remember Joey singing about Major Tom in Friends?). The lyrics have also been used in Scandinavian countries to study modern English poetry. However, it was Bowie’s work throughout the 1970s, which was truly ground-breaking, that cemented his place in popular culture. It became evident that Bowie understood his audience: “And my brother’s back at home with his Beatles and his Stones/We never got it off on that revolution stuff/What a drag too many snags”. He also started experimenting with different gender expressions and performances, wearing a dress on the cover of The Man Who Sold the World (1970), stating he was bisexual in interviews and penning lyrics such as “You’ve got your mother in a whirl/She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl”. Bowie’s already androgynous appearance made this particularly provocative for some.
In the days of the ‘Sasha Fierces’ (plural), it is worth noting that no one performed their alter egos better or more successfully than Bowie. His most famous alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, continued to experiment and indeed provoke through both the styling of Ziggy/Bowie and album content. The ‘Ziggy era’ is however a strong fan favourite and remains popular. Another common theme for Bowie was insanity and mental illness, which was also a prominent feature on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972), but perhaps came to full fruition through the Aladdin Sane alter – quite literally a lad insane.
The Ziggy and Aladdin Sane (1973) albums have often been credited as glam rock, but one of Bowie’s strengths has always been to avoid labels and in that vein he has moved through different genres with ease, always seemingly understanding the ‘cultural pulse’ of the times and remaining progressive. Indeed, this musical diversity led a generation who grew up during his decade-long hiatus (2003-13) to rediscover him as an artist, reaffirming his status as an iconic cult figure. And it was perhaps his ability to continually evolve, and remain current yet alternative at the same time, that makes his cultural legacy so significant. Bowie could be abrasive through his music and expression, and as a result he changed the cultural landscape. Perhaps it is now time we all don our spandex jumpsuits and remember that “there’s a starman waiting in the sky, he came to meet us and he blew our minds”.
Picture: "David Bowie - TopPop 1974 10" by AVRO - Beeld En Geluid Wiki - Gallerie: Toppop 1974. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:David_Bowie_-_TopPop_1974_10.png#/media/File:David_Bowie_-_TopPop_1974_10.png