What can be said about David Bowie that hasn’t been said already? Chameleon, gender-bender, androgyne, king of reinvention, alien, 70s star, English gentleman, icon–the list goes on. I discovered David Bowie’s music only in his English gentleman-pop star phase, and only as an adult did I get to know his earlier works. This, however, does not diminish my appreciation for the man and his artistry. It seems necessary that as an artist, I needed to pay tribute to him. After much thought, it did not seem possible to write any sort of objective essay on the man. Then it became clear: David Bowie requires a subjective response. (Readers may enjoy another such subjective response in the form of a poem by writer Anya Krushelnitskaya at http://imperfectimpostor.com/2016/01/14/bowie-died/)
Then the question became, What can an artist learn from David Bowie? What made him so unique?
-Live in different places. Bowie grew up in London, but in Los Angeles, Berlin, New York, etc. One cannot help but be influenced by the culture in various cities when one is an artist. It creates a cross-pollination that one cannot otherwise have. He also worked with musicians and artists from different places around the world, and later married Somali supermodel Iman. So his aesthetic was a global one.
-Create your own aesthetic. A rather contradictory thing to say, given the last statement above. But being the true artist he was–he went to art school–he created a sound and personalities like nobody else. There was or is no one quite like David Bowie. Originality was his mode of being.
-Reinvention. “Chameleon” is a word one frequently hears about David Bowie. No two albums were the same, for they were often concept albums based on characters. Being able to inhabit different identities is something a writer does, for each story or novel is its own personality. Reinvention allows the artist to explore different avenues, ideas, personalities, styles, etc. It is the greatest gift a creative person can have.
-Maintain a certain modicum of mystery. The artist we know is David Bowie was really David Jones. Those who know him have commented on a certain amount of unknowableness, that one could not quite grasp his motives or his contradictory words and actions. Was he gay? Sexually ambiguous? Really just a shy family man who put on personas on stage? We don’t need to know. We only need to see his art.
-Have integrity and no ego. Many colleagues of his have commented on his ability to leave his ego at the door and be open to working with various musicians. This is a must for anyone who collaborates with others in the arts.
-Great art is beyond gender. Bowie’s androgynous characters and personal style (one need only see a photo of him with his first wife and newborn son, in which he looks rather like the mother of the child, with his long hair and tender hold of the baby) pushed the limits of sexuality and conventional gender roles. Was he a beautiful man? A handsome woman? Drag queen? Alien? Or a slim, elegant, masculine Englishman married to a beautiful African model? Perhaps none of this matters when you have such brilliantly poignant songs as “Space Oddity” or the catchy danceability of “Modern Love.”
-A degree of popular success doesn’t hurt. “Let’s Dance” was a Billboard Number 1 hit. As almost every artist knows, it is difficult to be financially successful in this career, so perhaps commercial triumphs can allow an artist to have the means to work in more obscure avenues.
-Cross-pollinate in a variety of artistic genres. David Bowie was a pioneer in performance art, videos, a singer, a champion of costume design, an actor, and so much more. A great artist is someone who can be creative in a variety of media, who can synthesize them and come up with a language of his or her own.
-David Bowie was uniquely English. Perhaps one could say that there is no eccentric quite like an English eccentric! Why the island nation seems to have a proliferation of oddballs and unconventional individuals is certainly of interest. It is a society that values, to a degree, a certain sense of homogeneity and tradition — look at the terraced house architecture everywhere throughout Britain, the presence of monarchy, or the use of school uniforms for example — and community values that we lack in America, and so perhaps creative rebellion is one of the few outlets a person can have. The English sense of fantasy and imagination (a subject worthy of a future post) is renowned the world over, as seen in Harry Potter novels and Alice in Wonderland and Monty Python. The Swinging Sixties were perhaps one of England’s most creatively fertile periods, encouraging a “letting loose” of social mores and previously held habits. In any case, David Bowie is one of the best examples of English creativity.
There was never anyone like David Bowie, nor will there ever be anyone like him. He is a great example for future artists to study, but not to emulate. Would Bowie really have wanted clones?