There are artists who have iconic moments in the course of their careers and then there are artists who are simply icons. David Bowie is undeniably iconic. Bowie, who passed away Sunday from a quiet battle with cancer, popularized glam rock with his ever evolving persona, flamboyant stage shows and original aesthetic.
David Bowie set the precedent for artists including Madonna, Boy George, Lady Gaga, and even Marilyn Manson. Though gender bending and drag may have “been a thing” prior to Bowie bursting out onto the scene, it was a thing that most perceived as complete taboo. When Bowie slipped into the color wheel identity of Ziggy Stardust, he proved gender to be a construct easily broken down through creative prowess. Ziggy also catapulted Bowie to fame—his prior albums (“David Bowie,” “Space Oddity,” “The Man Who Sold the World”) didn’t have the same commercial success. Although those albums are all brilliant; he was meant to grab hold of something…otherworldly.
So in 1972 Bowie flounced onto the stage of Top of the Pops as a fabulous alien where he crooned “There’s a starman waiting in the sky/He’d like to come and meet us/But he thinks he’d blow our minds.” Minds, were definitely blown. And for the next year, Bowie made Ziggy his go-to alter ego. Not only for the sake of artistic expression, but because he felt more comfortable that way.
Bowie grew up in South London in a working class household. He was socially awkward, and found escape in music. “As an adolescent, I was painfully shy, withdrawn.” “Offstage, I’m a robot. Onstage, I achieve emotion. It’s probably why I prefer dressing up as Ziggy to being David.”
Like young Bowie, many others struggled (and continue to struggle) with finding their true selves. Early on Bowie embraced the LGBTQ community. He hung out with Andy Warhol, Iggy Pop, and numerous drag performers in early 1970s New York. Perhaps they gave him inspiration as he later gave inspiration to those in the closet or unhappy in their given sex. His sexuality reshaped itself as much as his on-stage personas. In the early 1970s, he declared himself gay, and then later changed the label to bisexual. Not long after, however, he said assuming the label of bisexuality was “the biggest mistake I ever made.”
Soon, Bowie stopped using labels for his sexuality, completely forgoing society’s bylaws. He made it okay to just be ourselves, and showed us that the “self” is a concept that can be as malleable as we’d like it to be.
Bowie could be considered one of the first mainstream drag performers. He gender bent regularly, dressing in drag with gusto in music videos like “Boys Keep Swinging,” where he donned a face with smeared lipstick. He recreated a similar look in “China Girl.” David Bowie’s bold looks and personas inspired not only musicians but the fashion industry. More stylish than fashionable, he got the fashion world talking.
In the 1980s, women graced the runway in men’s suits, shoulders erect from shoulder pads. Annie Lennox, one of the many artists who sought guidance from Bowie’s lavish persona would often sport men’s suits, and colorful makeup. Jean-Paul Gaultier also found inspiration in Bowie’s lavishness and androgyny.
Perhaps even more significant than the actual changeability of Bowie’s identity was his unabashed transparency. Other artists, such as Elton John kept their sexuality under wraps, even though the world continued to question his authenticity. John didn’t come out his bisexual until 1976, and waited until over a decade later to come out as gay. Elton John was one of the many musicians who were moved by Bowie. Upon hearing the news of his passing, John said of Bowie, “An amazing life. An amazing career.” Lady Gaga said that Bowie acted as her guiding light; he helped her feel comfortable in her own skin and her own shifting identity. “Every morning I wake up and think, ‘What would Bowie do?'”
David Bowie paved the way for how people view gender, identity, and style, reshaping contemporary culture in most every capacity. Though he may have grown out of his personas throughout the course of his career, his audience never grew out of him. We never will. Bowie will continue to exist as an otherworldly force that instills a certain type of magic in us. And because of the music, we’ll always have our Starman.