Remembering David Bowie’s influence

The impact of singer/songwriter David Bowie, shown launching the U.S. leg of his 2003 "A Reality Tour," extended beyond music to pop culture. (Kathy Willens / Associated Press)
The impact of singer/songwriter David Bowie, shown launching the U.S. leg of his 2003 “A Reality Tour,” extended beyond music to pop culture. (Kathy Willens / Associated Press)

By Steve Johnson
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

As we mourn the loss of David Bowie, who died Sunday after battling cancer for 18 months, what keeps coming to mind is the huge impact he had on our times, anticipating and, often, helping to shape its twists and turns through the past few decades.

“He always got to the unknown first,” the theater critic Hilton Als wrote in the New Yorker on Monday.

Here are eight ways Bowie, who was 69, influenced popular culture:

Gender bender

At a time when homosexuality was still, mostly, illegal, Bowie publicly embraced the idea of a fluid sexuality. As he came to public prominence in the 1970s, he would wear dresses on stage, proclaim himself gay, flirt openly with guitarist Mick Ronson in a legendary British TV performance of the song “Starman.” All of it helped pave the way for a culture that became ever more accepting of non-traditional sex roles.

Genre bender

Not only did Bowie make music in an astonishing range of styles, but he made compelling music in all of them. His catalog includes everything from singer-songwriter gems (“Changes,” “Life on Mars”) to grinding, guitar-led rock (“Suffragette City,” “Rebel Rebel”) to soul (“Young Americans”) to funk (“Fame”) to post-Cold War anthems (“Heroes,” “Station to Station”). And when he needed to make hits, he turned out “Let’s Dance” and helped shape the sound of the 1980s. “To me it seems so intentional and so well done that I don’t think the word ‘poser’ fits,” said Michael Darling, chief curator of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the only U.S. home for the “David Bowie Is” museum show. “It’s so strategic and smart in a way that is very Warholian.”

Crossover artist

Before settling into rock ‘n’ roll, Bowie tried his hand at, among other things, mime. And he would keep experimenting, playing a convincing space alien in Nicolas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and the title character in the Broadway play “The Elephant Man.” He wasn’t the first to move from popular music into film and theater, of course, but he was one of the most effective, even as he said he lacked the discipline to do more than dabble in acting. “It really kind of connects up to bigger ideas about a signature style and how that’s maybe an old fashioned notion,” Darling said. “This idea of multiple personalities, multiple ways of perception, really is one of the most defining radical aspects of late 20th century culture.”

Performance artist

There was always an aspect to Bowie’s art that was beyond the music, from the theatricality of his costumes and the stage sets he designed to the way he tried on and shed personas. To see this in action, look up the clip of Bowie on “Saturday Night Live” in 1979. There are the songs, yes, stellar versions of “The Man Who Sold the World,” “Boys Keep Swinging” and “TVC15,” but there are also the remarkable performances, including cabaret artist Klaus Nomi as a backup singer, a pink toy poodle with an embedded TV screen, and Bowie in a giant puppet costume and another that necessitated him being lifted into place on the stage.

Music video pioneer

Before there was even an outlet for them, Bowie was seeing that short films were made of his songs. MTV began life

David Bowie, shown during a 1997  concert celebrating his 50th birthday, not only sang "Fashion," he exuded fashion sense.  (Ron Frehm / Associated Press)
David Bowie, shown during a 1997 concert celebrating his 50th birthday, not only sang “Fashion,” he exuded fashion sense. (Ron Frehm / Associated Press)
by playing the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” and that works, lyrically, but the better choice might have been, say, Bowie’s film of his first hit, 1969’s “Space Oddity.” “From the very beginning he pushed it and took advantage of it in a way other artists didn’t,” Darling said.

Fashion icon

He was more striking-looking than handsome, but Bowie’s angularity, in facial structure and wire-thin body, helped him wear clothes well. And did he ever do so, taking stages in a cotton-candy-colored jumpsuit or in the iconic, wide-legged jumpsuit designed by Kansai Yamamoto, Bowie’s partner in one of the 1970s most potent designer-model collaborations.


The “David Bowie Is” show smashed attendance records, drawing 193,000 visitors in just under four months to Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2014. (The show is now in Groninger, the Netherlands.) Beyond a compelling life story and great integration of music into the museum experience, what made that show work was that Bowie kept just about everything, from a cocaine spoon that was part of his mid-1970s drug troubles to apartment keys from the Berlin years later that decade that helped him find solid ground again. It included the letter in which David Jones formally takes the name David Bowie, as well as costume after outrageous costume. It brought to mind, I wrote at the time of the MCA show, “the hippest lost episode of ‘Hoarders’ you could ever experience.”

Planner of his own death

People were puzzling out the meaning of the album Bowie released Friday, Blackstar, on his 69th birthday (a birthday he shares with Elvis Presley, by the way). But looking at the video now for its first song, “Lazarus,” is a haunting experience, and one last coup by the master showman. He’s on a hospital bed with bandages around his face and buttons for eyes; he’s writing frenetically; he’s singing “Look up here, I’m in heaven.”

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