Remembering Bowie the artist and his contribution to postmodernism

“His originality lay in the way he made questions of identity and visual masquerade so central to popular culture.”

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The death of David Bowie brings to an end a remarkable career that saw popular music intermesh with avant-garde fashion, film and art. It reminds us that the 1970s, a period subsequently derided as the decade that style forgot, was in fact a moment of extraordinary experimentation and innovation.

Despite the prosaic circumstances of his early life – he was born in Brixton and grew up in the outer London suburb of Bromley - there was always something other-worldly about him. This was partly due to his physical appearance, including, famously, his permanently dilated left pupil that lent his gaze an uncanny air. However, he also exploited the unworldliness of his fragile, thin androgynous body, evident in, for example, the video of one his best known songs, ‘Heroes,’ where he stands awkwardly like an alien visitor against the glare of the spotlights.

Given his succession assumed of identities and styles, from Ziggy Stardust to the New Romanticism of Scary Monsters, one might imagine that Bowie was engaged in a constant quest to transcend the ordinariness of his origins. But the significance of his work far outweighed such personal speculation. Musically, he was not particularly ground-breaking; he adopted and refined musical languages pioneered by others. Rather, his originality lay in the way he made questions of identity and visual masquerade so central to popular culture, and achieved that fusion of music, art and visual spectacle that has in retrospect come to be termed ‘postmodernism.’ This was evident, too, in his seamless transitions to performance in films such as Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 The Man Who Fell to Earth or mainstream productions such as The Hunger. His openness about his bisexuality – declared, too, when he curled a limp arm around the shoulders of guitarist Mick Ronson while performing ‘Starman’ on the notoriously conservative Top of the Pops – was revolutionary in challenging the prevalent heterosexual norms of popular music and culture.

Although much admired, it was not until 1983 that Bowie achieved commercial success when he released the album Let’s Dance. It represented another change in style in which he adapted to the pop landscape of the 1980s. It contained some of his most successful singles, such as ‘Modern Love,’ ‘China Girl’ and ‘Let’s Dance,’ but Bowie was himself uneasy about its concessions to mainstream taste. It also marked the decline in his creative originality. Followers often claim that Bowie was a source of constant reinvention, but this is hyperbole. Many of his projects, including his forays into films such as Absolute Beginners, were misconceived. Nevertheless, during a remarkable 14 years, from ‘Space Oddity’ in 1969 to Let’s Dance Bowie managed continually to redefine himself and to radicalise the audience for popular music, but thereafter he was mostly thought of in terms of his legacy for others. The fact that he was the subject of a highly regarded exhibition at the V&A Museum in 2013, confirmed that despite his arresting final albums, Where Are We Now? and Blackstar, Bowie had already passed into history.

Homepage banner image of David Bowie by craniodsgn (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License).

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