David Bowie was much more than a musician or an actor. He was an icon, a force of pop culture that affected countless people through his incredible career. Here’s what the incomparable David Bowie has meant to all of us at io9 and Gizmodo.
David Bowie Was the Greatest, Truest Rock Star in the Universe
When David Bowie passed away this morning, we didn’t just lose him. We lost Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke. We lost Aladdin Sane, and Thomas Jerome Newton, and the Goblin King. We lost an explorer, a pioneer, one of the most creative, brilliant musicians of the 20th century. And we lost the greatest rock star the world has ever known.
Other musicians might have sold more albums, and other bands may have had more #1 hits. Maybe they had more screaming fans or wild, debauched nights (although I imagine Bowie could give most of them a run for their money in that regard). But only Bowie truly epitomized rock n’ roll more than anyone, because Bowie knew what a rock star was, before any of us.
He explained it in his seminal album Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, back in 1972. Like Bowie himself, his Ziggy persona was an alien, estranged from society for his long hair, his make-up, his overt sexuality and androgyny. But his status as the ultimate outsider made him an icon for every teenager and adult who ever felt excluded from the mainstream; he was a messiah that understood, accepted and loved everyone who traditional culture disapproved of.
What made Bowie so brilliant is how he understood that how simultaneously powerful and superficial being a rock star was—how his position as an icon was crafted not just by him, but by his fans who wanted to be saved. By literally performing as Ziggy, he turned the subtext of that artificiality into text. And, because he knew how essential, how inevitable it was for all messiahs to die, Bowie didn’t hesitate to kill his Ziggy persona when the time came.
Had Bowie only created Ziggy Stardust, he would be remembered as a genius, but this was only the beginning of a 40-year career that spanned… just about everything. David Bowie rocked, he crooned, he danced with Mick Jagger in the street; he defied expectations and went to Germany, churning out some of the most brllliant, challenging work of his career.
He parlayed his natural theatrical talents into movie stardom, using his charismatic otherworldliness to playing aliens, geniuses and incredibly sexy Goblin Kings. He publicly claimed he met his first wife when they were having sex with the same man. And he was a big Spongebob Squarepants fan, too.
David Bowie was a musician, an actor, a genius, a chameleon, an iconoclast and, most especially, the truest rock star who ever lived. He was a pioneer so far ahead of his time that few people have been able to follow the trails he blazed. There was literally no one else like David Bowie, and now that he’s passed, there never will be again. —Rob Bricken
“Ziggy Played Guitar”
Ziggy Stardust is the greatest science fiction album of all time. This is not my opinion. It is universally acknowledged that Bowie’s rock opera about an alien who comes to earth in its final days and becomes a rock n’ roll messiah doesn’t just hold up today, it’s just as brilliant today as it was when Bowie released it 44 years ago. The album is technically about an alien who comes to earth in the planet’s dying days with a message of peace, love and sex, but who is destroyed by his fame and his fans; however, that barely scratches the surface of Bowie’s joyous, somber, sexy, messianic, apocalyptic scifi masterpiece.
When I finally listened to Ziggy Stardust for the first time in 2000, I didn’t anticipate discovering my favorite album ever; it was 28 years old at that point. So I was astonished to discover how relevant it still felt, how powerful it was. The album didn’t just hold up; it was still brilliant all these decades later. Listening it to it today, with tears in my eyes, of course it still is. I wasn’t alive when it was recorded, and nor do I fit any idea of the ultimate outsider that Bowie sang of, and yet this album speaks to me in ways that no other album ever has, that I can’t possibly explain. It’s alien, it’s timeless, and yet it’s intensely personal even as its epic. And, most fittingly, it could serve as the epitaph of Bowie himself: “He too it all too far / but boy could he play guitar” —RB
“Ashes to Ashes” Freaked Me Out
This music video still gives me goosebumps every time I see it. Something about the ultra-primitive visual effects makes its weird clown/funeral imagery look that much more bleak and horrifying. The whole thing looks like a washed-out, inescapable nightmare, or a withdrawal-induced hallucination. It also looks a lot like an episode of Doctor Who from that same era. The Larry Graham-influenced funk bassline is countered by a wall of synth that makes the song impossible to dance to, and the combination of the two drills itself into your brain. I think I discovered this song at exactly the same time as “Space Oddity,” and it seemed to be two parts of the same story about someone who travels too far out into the universe, and then crashes to Earth. —Charlie Jane Anders
The Man Who Fell Into The Man Who Fell to Earth
It should be no surprise that David Bowie’s first film role was as an alien in Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. It might be more surprising to learn that Bowie was as good at acting on camera as he was rocking on stage. As Thomas Jerome Newton, a Martian who comes to Earth to bring water to his dying planet but gets destroyed by the vice of Earth, Bowie was perfectly cast. He was simultaneously otherworldly, but somehow still more human than his fellow cast members—a perfect utilization of his Ziggy Stardust persona. The Man Who Fell to Earth is one of the greatest science fiction films of the 20th century, and Bowie is responsible for most of it. Given his immense talent in all other walks of his illustrious life, perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised at all. —RB
“Cat People” Made a Nest Inside My Head
As a kid, I only really listened to funk music. I was kind of an annoying funk purist, who turned up my nose at anything that lacked a really strong bassline and preferably a nine-piece horn section. But some years after it actually came out, I realized that his Let’s Dance album was just brilliant. The notion that Bowie had worked with Nile Rodgers, the R&B/disco mastermind behind Sister Sledge and Chic, was kind of mind-boggling to me, and the thumping beats in this album totally won me over. For some reason, the song “Cat People” was the one that actually stuck in my mind and got stuck on endless repeat though. This howling soundscape, and the tale of people who turned themselves into cats, was only made more intensely weird by the notion of “putting out fire with gasoline.” I hadn’t actually seen the 1982 horror movie with Nastassia Kinski as a sexy were-cat, but listening to Bowie’s song in a loop conjured an image of that story that was probably better than the actual movie. —CJA
Life on Mars Led Me to Bowie
I was a teenager when the world had thought David Bowie had all but retired from making new music in the mid-2000s, so I didn’t really grow up listening to his music. But I can still remember the first time I heard it, when I watched the first episode of the BBC time-travel/cop thriller Life on Mars. Aside from lending its name to the series, the titular song features in the opening scenes of the show where protagonist Sam Tyler is hit by a car, only to wake up and find himself back in 1973.
It’s such a powerful moment, made iconic by Bowie’s poetic lyrics. “Life on Mars” is a song of contradiction and dissonance that makes it perfect for a moment of discovery like Sam’s, or time travel in general. It’s both immediately anthemic and yet deeply melancholy, something that upon first appraisal is wildly impenetrable and yet as you listen more and more it reveals layers of itself. It’s a song about looking at the world and wanting to be somewhere else, some time else, and the hope and tragedy that that all entails.
I was hooked, desperate to hear more, something that lead to me digging into my parents’ music collection and, eventually into an ardent appreciation for Bowie that is still with me today—an appreciation of his ability to capture the ethereal concept of the other across his different personas and his albums, from scifi routes to glam-rock epics. Bowie, like “Life on Mars” itself, was grand and full of showmanship, and yet hauntingly otherwordly and transformative. —James Whitbrook
“Five Years” Taught Me What Makes a Great Song
When I was 12, I started learning guitar, I didn’t really know how to play anything and I wasn’t very good. At the time, I was obsessed with David Bowie’s early stuff, Young Americans, Low, Hunky Dory, and of course, Ziggy. When you listened to Ziggy, you could hear that Bowie quality that drove you to click repeat and listen unending. But it was really “Five Years” that showed me that Bowie was an undeniable giant. A song with a subject so emotionally complex yet built with a simple chord progression. “Five Years” was and continues to be my absolute favorite Bowie song — or really folk rock song in general.
But on today of all days, all I can think about is how’d I’d give anything for just five more years of Bowie. —Darren Orf
I Was Jareth the Goblin King
Before I really knew who David Bowie was, I knew him as Jareth, the Goblin King. A Jim Henson movie would have been the kiss of death for many careers, but Bowie infused the role with his signature weird, wild inventiveness to make Jareth one of the most memorable villains of all time. For most of my youth, the soundtrack cassette for Labyrinth was perpetually cycling through my boom box; our two-story family room made an excellent location to stage baby doll-tossing performances of “Magic Dance.” (You remind me of the babe. What babe?) In fact, Labyrinth was such a big part of my childhood that when I was admitted to an emergency room in Las Vegas and told I had an inner-ear virus called labyrinthitis, I said “Like David Bowie?” The look the doctor gave me revealed he obviously hadn’t seen the movie—and I had just spent hours convincing him I hadn’t taken any drugs.
I admit my Halloween costume from a few years ago wasn’t just an homage to Jareth, rather it was an homage to an homage: I dressed as “David Bowie from the 1986 movie Labyrinth” seen in the “Bowie’s in Space” episode of Flight of the Conchords—which is actually one of the best celebrations of Bowie’s weird, wild inventiveness out there. I’m going to watch it again right now and dance magic dance. —Alissa Walker
1970s Bowie Will Help You Tell Weird Stories
I listened to Ziggy Stardust and Changesonebowie quite a bit as a teenager—sometime after I had worn out my copy of Let’s Dance, in fact—but it was only in the last few years that I really started soaking a lot in ‘70s Bowie. Maybe it was hearing ultra-dramatic renditions of “Lady Stardust” at Sister Flora Goodthyme’s karaoke night. Or maybe it was the haunting use of “Life on Mars” in the TV show of the same name.
But a few years ago, I started obsessively listening to Bowie’s ‘70s material, way more than I ever had before, especially while writing. His classic stuff is bursting with drama and a kind of lush weirdness, and he often seems to be speaking to someone who’s putting him on the spot. People are trying to pin this mercurial sprite down and force him to explain himself, to explicate his gender-defying, unfixable identity, to sort out all the inconsistencies in his story, and he always slips away. “Oh no/not me/I never lost control.”
Plenty of ‘70s rock is vaguely operatic, if not bombastic, but nobody else’s music retains the same intense charge as Bowie’s, after all this time. It’s still as if he’s speaking right to you, seeing you, and yet deliberately not quite making sense. —CJA
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