My idol has always been David Bowie. Nobody has ever been better at following the advice often attributed to Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself, everybody else is already taken.” Over five decades in the music, fashion, and entertainment industries, Bowie never stopped exploring who he was and finding new ways to inspire others with his gender-bending, music-blending creativity. Most of all, as a role model, he made it all right for me and many others to be our own weird and wonderful selves. He made anyone and everyone comfortable to fly their unique freak flag.
Growing up as a child of the 1980s, I caught the second and third waves of Bowie’s work. “Let’s Dance,” “China Girl,” and “Under Pressure” were the first hits that made me take notice: “Let’s sway / While color lights up your face / Let’s sway / Sway through the crowd to an empty space.” Bowie swayed me. He convinced me because he was one of a kind. He persuaded me with his stories. And from there I was off with all-night sojourns into the entire Bowie canon. His albums mixed an astonishing array of genres, from art rock to glam rock to post-punk, electronica, hard rock, jazz, new wave, and unfortunately even disco. There was nothing he couldn’t do.
I’m not alone in my obsession. After all, he is one of the bestselling recording artists of all time. Without him there is no Cure, U2, Lou Reed, Joy Division, LCD Soundsystem, or even Lady Gaga. Rolling Stone magazine recently called him “the greatest rock star who ever fell to this or any other world.”
But with Bowie, the main attraction was never just “Changes”or “Ashes to Ashes”; it was Bowie—or Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the ThinWhite Duke, or one of his endless supply of alter egos. Before he was Bowie, David Robert Jones was a struggling musician moving from band to band and churning out a string of singles nobody bought. Even after he changed his name to David Bowie, his first solo album went nowhere—and it’s easy to see why. In those years, Bowie was still trying to fit into existing categories of what he thought people wanted him to be. Whether he was playing blues covers or folk, it all sounded like something people had already heard. It was all too familiar.
And guess what? Nobody wanted anything to do with that DavidBowie.
But by 1969, when he dropped “Space Oddity” days before the launch of NASA’s Apollo 11, he was on his way to becoming an international rock god that would change the shape of popular culture forever. In the decade that followed, he went on a creative tear unequaled in the history of rock. From the albums The Man Who Sold the World, Hunky Dory, and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars on through to Young Americans, Heroes, and the posthumous release of the haunting masterpiece Blackstar, Bowie was constantly reinventing himself, incorporating new ideas, pushing boundaries, and challenging assumptions every chance he got—even from beyond the grave.
The timing of this renaissance was no accident. Bowie spent the two years between his first failed solo album and the release of “Space Oddity”discovering new influences and exploring new ways of making art. He lived at a Buddhist monastery, studied dance, drama, and mime, and helped create an experimental arts lab. He was finding ways to be his true self and express it better.He went deep into himself so that he could understand what he wanted to say and convince all of us to pay attention.
Most of all, he found his own vision and learned to always trust it.
What made him irresistible as an artist is that he wasn’t trying to be the next Jagger or Dylan. He was becoming the first and only David Bowie, a man to whom old categories just didn’t apply. He wasn’t blues or pop, psychedelic or soul, man or woman, gay or straight. He didn’t have a single identity. What united everything he did was that it came from David Bowie being an original.