David Bowie, a British singer-songwriter from South London who transformed rock into high art by combining the audacity of pop, the decadence and androgyny of Weimar cabaret, the melancholy of working class pubs and the flamboyance of the circus, died on Jan. 10. He was 69. His death came two days after his birthday and the release of what became his final studio album—Black Star.
As a musician-performer, Bowie's vision was the absence of vision or style, preferring instead to distort the conventional into fantastic new forms. In the process, he ingeniously re-positioned iconic imagery, creating an alternate rock universe populated by tragic-comic characters with equally colorful issues.
Bowie resisted conformity and relentlessly played against type. From Space Oddity (1969) to Young Americans (1975), Bowie's album themes introduced an array of fragile outcasts conceived to both shock and pique the interest of male and female fans. In the years from Station to Station (1976) to Scary Monsters (1980), Bowie shifted his approach, setting aside protagonists for an icy exploration of music technology and beats. The final series of albums, from Let's Dance (1983) to the recently released Black Star (2016), seemed to be layered musical Polaroids of the times in which the albums were recorded. Bowie had an uncanny ability to accurately interpret the culture before we even understood the full impact of those times. In this regard, his final album can be seen as a death mask.
Bowie often treated the album as a canvas, encapsulating his messages within the layers of sound—messages that were never expected to be properly decoded or understood. Like all fine artists, Bowie never fell into a groove or exploited what worked. Instead, he created fresh approaches. At heart, he was an unsentimental amalgam of iconic rockers—a mix of Elvis Presley's beauty, Buddy Holly's fragile sensitivity, Bob Dylan's intellect and Lou Reed's passion for decay. Bowie also was in awe of stardom, poked fun at narcissism and infused performances with an unorthodox charisma. All were exploited exquisitely by Bowie, yet he always seemed to keep his ego in check, ensuring that he'd forever remain a mystery and keep us from figuring out his motives or purpose.
Whether Bowie's music survives the test of time once the nostalgia of fans passes is anyone's guess. But in terms of his contribution, it's hard to think of another rocker who started from scratch as often as Bowie did and left behind a more varied body of surprising work.
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