In 1967, when David Bowie was a scuffling 20-year-old folk singer, he got his first letter from an American fan and sent a thoughtful reply. “I made my first movie last week,” he wrote. “Just a 15-minute short, but it gave me some good experience for a full-length deal I have starting in January.” Even before he had secured a foothold in one medium, he was planning his conquest of others. “I was trying to be a one-man revolution,” he later said.
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Bowie was an enthusiast who loved to disclose and champion his interests: Andy Warhol, German Expressionism, The Velvet Underground, wallpaper, Neu, cocaine, mime, androgyny, George Orwell, Scott Walker, Philly soul, Genet, henna, Brecht, Fritz Lang, William S. Burroughs, Alexander McQueen, saxophones, Mott the Hoople, Anthony Burgess, women, men, the Internet. He wanted as many canvases as possible, and he was unabashedly strategic about the broadest, most mass medium of all: TV.
When he sang “Starman” on the British prime-time show Top of the Pops in 1972, wearing a garish Lycra jumpsuit, and casually put his arm around the shoulder of guitarist Mick Ronson six months after announcing his bisexuality, he set loose the possibility that gay culture might not always remain illicit. That small gesture, a generation now agrees, was a huge moment for gay lib in the United Kingdom.
In the next few years, he duetted with Cher on her CBS variety show, gabbed with Dick Cavett (who said, “You seem like a working actor,” as Bowie chuckled, knowing it was true), and lip-synced his breakthrough hits “Fame” and “Golden Years” on Soul Train.
On TV, he could shift gears and guises with ease: On the 1977 special Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, Bowie sang a melancholy carol with Crosby, a 73-year-old crooner who died a month later. (“I’m doing this show because my mother loves Bing Crosby,” he told the show’s writers.) Two years later, as the music guest on Saturday Night Live, he sang “TVC15” in a severe pencil skirt while downtown New York artistes Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias chirped grandly and posed behind him, next to a pink stuffed poodle.
When MTV launched in 1981, pop culture had finally caught up to Bowie, who had been making music videos for years. He even shilled for the network, as part of its “I Want My MTV” marketing campaign, though once he noticed that the network wasn’t playing videos by black artists, he chided it while VJ Mark Goodman tried to interview him.
“Anything new and exciting artistically, he was always at the forefront of it,” says David Mallet, who directed more than a dozen Bowie videos, including “DJ,” “Fashion” and “Ashes to Ashes.” In the clip for “Boys Keep Swinging,” Bowie mimes the song onstage in a suit until the chorus, when he suddenly appears in drag as three backup singers. “The BBC watched the first 20 seconds and said, ‘Nice to see him doing something proper for once,’ then put it on the air at teatime on a Saturday,” Mallet recalls with a delighted laugh. “Then there was a hell of a row. People said it was obscene.”
It wasn’t radio or movies that finally made Bowie a global superstar, but TV. His 1983 album Let’s Dance, produced by Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers, spawned three hit songs and videos: the title track (his first U.S. No. 1 single since “Fame”), “China Girl” and “Modern Love.” At Live Aid in July 1985, his greatest-hits set was one of the broadcast’s emotional highlights, though during the show he also debuted the video to “Dancing in the Streets,” a duet with Mick Jagger that comprised the ludicrous low point of his years at the top. Bowie soon decided he hated being in the mainstream and formed the abrasive hard-rock band Tin Machine, he said, to scare away the Phil Collins fans who were coming to his arena concerts.
“Sponge” is a word that intimates often use to describe him. “I was endeavoring to teach him to astonish,” said Lindsay Kemp, the British thespian with whom Bowie studied. “He was like a sponge.” And Arias, Bowie’s SNL collaborator, recently said, “He was like this force, this sponge, that absorbed it all.”
Even Bowie saw this. “I am he who quotes, I am the sponge that absorbs,” he said in one of his last interviews.
Part of Bowie’s genius was an ability to infiltrate culture with fringe ideas that quickly spread into the mainstream. In contrast to his cool facade, he was a gifted smuggler who popularized trends — in music, movies, fashion and TV — through the virtue of his own heated enthusiasm.
This story originally appeared in the Jan. 23 issue of Billboard.