David Bowie, who just died of cancer aged 69, had an incalculable impact on pop culture throughout his shape-shifting career. But perhaps more than any other musician, he also had a tremendous impact on science fiction. He changed the way we thought about the alien, the uncanny, and the familiar.
Bowie’s first hit single, “Space Oddity,” established him not just as an artist who sang about science-fictional topics like space travel, but also as someone who embraced the discomfort of humanity juxtaposed against the cosmos. The song’s churning guitar riffs and psychedelic noises convey something of the disorientation of floating in a tin can, far from home. Over the years that followed, Bowie produced some of the most poignant representations ever of alien visitors, doomed grandeur and tormented supermen. I recently listened to his song “The Man Who Sold the World” on a loop while writing, and it reveals more and more layers of pathos, remorse and arrogance the more you hear it.
Bowie’s greatest gift to science fiction was that combination of pathos and dissocation, which comes across in a lot of his best songs. His album Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, a rock opera about a band led by a mysterious figure, encapsulates the apocalypse, androgyny and rockstar excess with the same bohemian drama. (Click here to read Bowie explaining to William S. Burroughs the whole fascinating backstory of Ziggy Stardust.) Ziggy Stardust was just one of many personas that Bowie created over the years, including the zombie-like Thin White Duke.
Here’s more of Bowie talking about Ziggy Stardust, with animation:
Bowie also starred in the film The Man Who Fell to Earth, playing one of the most stark, disturbing and psychologically complex representations of an alien ever captured on screen. This film was an important precursor to recent experimental aliens-among-us films like Under the Skin, and if you ever get a chance to see the restored uncut version, you should drop everything.
Edited to add: Bowie also played an unforgettable vampire in The Hunger, and one of the most iconic fantasy characters, Jareth the Goblin King in Labyrinth.
Tilda Swinton wrote a beautiful tribute to Bowie in her speech at the opening of his exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and talked about what his image and his music meant to her growing up. And how great it is to realize that “the freak becomes the great unifier.”
Over time, Bowie seemed to be at war with his own rock stardom. After the Let’s Dance album reached a huge audience that was new to his music, there are lots of accounts of Bowie struggling with what to do with that new kind of pop stardom. The idea of being a “rock star” often seemed more foreign and bizarre than the notion of a glam-rock visitor from another planet.
And he never stopped making awesome music—he just released a new album, Blackstar.
Bowie provided us with a soundtrack for our alienation—the song “Life on Mars” doesn’t just give that brilliant TV show its title, but provides a crucial piece of emotional texture during the show’s most important moment. And he helped us to imagine that our own feelings of strangeness and dislocation were bigger and more wonderful than we had possibly imagined.
He’ll be missed, but his music will keep reshaping reality as we know it.