The Man Who Fell From Space: Remembering David Bowie
In 1947, a boy was born in Brixton, England who would grow up to be an alien, sell over 140 million albums, help bring attention to the marginalized and change the face of the music industry forever. David Bowie, who the world lost on January 10, 2016, made himself a household name with an orange mullet and a sky blue suit, but what he gave in his 69 years was more than flash or cheap entertainment.
Bowie’s music was never far from the collective concerns of society and more often than not, mirrored the struggles of his listeners. In 1972, three years after the moon landing, Bowie introduced the world to Ziggy Stardust, an androgynous alien character complete with a pink lightning bolt who had come to Earth. While the Soviet Union was desperately attempting to advance its space exploration and America was refusing to give up its monopoly on the cosmos, Ziggy sought to highlight the absurdity of these tensions. This not-quite-male character turned the well-known image of rockstars on its head. Appearing with heavy makeup and bright feminine colors, Bowie made a mockery of classical masculinity. He strove to exemplify liberty through self-expression, choosing radical originality rather than falling into the post-Woodstock commercial music scene.
When Ziggy Stardust left us, Bowie set his eyes to the American music scene. The soul genre was in full swing, so he took his inspiration, wrapped it in plastic, and came out with his 1975 album Young Americans. This reinvention of sound was called “plastic soul” and it garnered him his first number one hit in America with the song “Fame,” a collaboration with John Lennon. This track was such a smash that it landed him as the first white artist to play on the massively popular TV show Soul Train. Here was a slender, white man from southern England now standing as a leader in a genre that he had no birthright to. He belonged because he tried to listen to the people.
In the 80s, Bowie turned his ear back east, to Germany. As the cries of the German people were louder than ever over the wall that separated the people of Berlin, this singer decided to make his stand the best way he could: through his music. His albums Low, Heroes and Lodger became known as the “Berlin trilogy” and were characterised by both innovative leaps in music production and highly political statements. Songs like “Heroes” turn this beast of social injustice into an unignorable tale of two lovers torn apart from each other by the wall. Instead of chasing the next paycheck like so many of his contemporaries, Bowie followed only two things: unprecedented musical advancements and giving a voice to the causes that needed one. In 1987, two years before the wall was torn down, Bowie played a concert in West Berlin right against the wall. Thousands of citizens from both sides rushed to the wall and sang together, united under the sound of Bowie’s voice. The day after his death, the German Foreign Office officially thanked him for “helping to bring down the wall.”
Ziggy Stardust always said it would all end with a black hole, a dead star, and it seems that he was predicting his own future. Blackstar, Bowie’s final album, was released two days before his struggle with liver cancer ended. All of alternative society— music, art, fashion and literature—was influenced by him in one way or another. Artists like The Killers, Daft Punk, Annie Lennox, The Runaways and Lady Gaga all admittedly follow in the trail that Bowie blazed. Whether through his artistry, his music videos like “Under Pressure” that showed the issue of homelessness, his massive charitable donations or his refusal to live by anyone’s idea of an authentic self, the man who fell from space changed this world.