Over the course of almost five decades, David Bowie transformed the very possibilities of pop music. Since his arrival at the dawn of the 1970s, every new movement that followed — punk, new wave, hip-hop, electronic, Goth, grunge, industrial — bore his stamp in some way. While age caught up with his peers, making them look old and irrelevant, or (best case) turning them into objects of nostalgia, Bowie’s cool never faded; his impact only kept expanding.
Yet one thing that became evident following the shocking announcement of his death at age 69 on Jan. 10 was how far his influence truly reached. From the Broadway stage to the financial markets, Bowie’s legacy is perhaps as broad as any other cultural figure of our time.
As soon as his Facebook page reported that Bowie had “died peacefully surrounded by his family after a courageous 18 month battle with cancer,” tributes began pouring in — from a wide spectrum of musicians including Bruce Springsteen (“Always changing and ahead of the curve …”) and Kanye West (“so fearless, so creative, he gave us magic for a lifetime”), but also from the likes of Russell Crowe (“One of the greatest performance artists to have ever lived”) and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron (“I grew up listening to and watching the pop genius David Bowie …”).
Bowie displayed a fearless dedication to innovation, constantly changing musical direction. Even his name was a reinvention: Born David Jones, he changed it to avoid confusion with Davy Jones of The Monkees. He grew up in London’s working-class Brixton neighborhood — his mother was a waitress, his father worked for a children’s charity. He started performing as a mime and cabaret entertainer in the late 1960s, evolving into a Bob Dylan-style singer-songwriter. He scored his first hit with “Space Oddity” in 1969, then dove into rock ‘n’ roll, initiating the theatrical, futuristic style that would come to be known as “glam rock.”
Creating the space-alien rocker persona he dubbed “Ziggy Stardust” and developing a visually striking, loosely narrative stage show, Bowie became a megastar. By July 1973, he had five albums in the British top 40, three of them in the top 15, before abruptly killing off the Ziggy character in a “farewell” concert. The pattern was established; as he ventured into funk-based “plastic soul,” spare electronic tones, jagged industrial beats or glossy pop, his music — and persona — remained in perpetual motion.
Rock ‘n’ roll always had been inseparable from style — from Elvis Presley’s blue suede shoes to The Beatles’ haircuts — but it was Bowie who made that link explicit, turning fashion into a focus of his projects. His various identities (Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke) were defined as much by their avant-garde looks — often created in collaboration with Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto — as by their sounds.
“[Bowie] inspired me by his creativity, his extravagance, his sense of fashion that he was constantly reinventing, by his allure, his elegance and his androgyny,” said fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier.
As he became increasingly interested in matching music and visuals, he pioneered the concept of music video long before MTV. From there, it was a short hop to film, with Bowie embarking on an ambitious, if not always triumphant, movie career. He appeared in 20 films, some well received (The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Last Temptation of Christ, Basquiat) and others less so (The Linguini Incident, Gunslinger’s Revenge). Perhaps his most impressive acting achievement was his highly praised 1980 run on Broadway in the title role of The Elephant Man.
Bowie’s vision was so prescient that at times it really did seem like he beamed down from the future. In 1997, he was the first to securitize royalty streams, selling $55 million of “Bowie Bonds” tied to future earnings from his hits. In 1998, he launched BowieNet, which offered ways to interact with the artist himself online (long before Instagram or Twitter) and operated as a full Internet service provider. Decades before Oculus Rift, the site also offered a 3D chat environment, “BowieWorld.”
“Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity,” he said in 2002, sensing the direction of the industry long before others could see it. “You’d better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that’s really the only unique situation that’s going to be left. It’s terribly exciting. But on the other hand, it doesn’t matter if you think it’s exciting or not; it’s what’s going to happen.”
But whatever method of expression he chose — from writing songs like “Rebel Rebel” and “Life on Mars?” to roles portraying Andy Warhol and Pontius Pilate — Bowie’s work consistently returned to common themes: the sense of alienation, of being an outsider. His radical individualism helped give voice to several generations of misfits and weirdos, enabling “the children that you spit on” — to borrow a line from his 1971 hit “Changes” — to come out from the shadows, defiant and proud.
This spirit also manifested in Bowie’s offstage actions. He announced his bisexuality in the mid-1970s, long before such a declaration was widely tolerated. Having dived deep into black music on such R&B-drenched hits as “Fame” and “Young Americans” (he was one of the few white artists to appear on Soul Train), he was a strong advocate for African-American artists. He gave Luther Vandross his start as a recording artist and tapped Nile Rodgers to produce 1983’s Let’s Dance — which became his biggest-selling album in the U.S. — at a time when Rodgers was reeling from the anti-disco backlash. Perhaps most significantly, Bowie called out MTV during the network’s early years for not playing videos by black artists. “I’m just floored by the fact that there are … so few black artists featured on it. Why is that?” he asked during an on-air interview in 1983.
This was the David Bowie who set a course for musicians, designers, actors, politicians and fans around the world. He was the original performer in a state of constant reinvention, paving the way for Prince, Madonna and Lady Gaga. “He was a one-off, a brilliant outlier,” wrote Peter Gabriel on Facebook, “always exploring, challenging and inspiring anyone who wanted to push the boundaries of music, art, fashion and society.”
And incredibly, he pursued that goal until his final hours. Knowing that his illness was advancing, he kept it hidden from the public and focused on two projects. First was the off-Broadway production Lazarus, a sequel of sorts to The Man Who Fell to Earth film. Bowie attended the show’s opening in December; the cast had no idea that he was ailing.
Then, on Jan. 8, his 69th birthday, Bowie released his 25th studio album, Blackstar. Inspired by the unconventional hip-hop of Kendrick Lamar, he had recorded it with a new set of musicians, mostly jazz players he came across in a New York City bar. Then, having willed himself to get this final statement into the world, two days later he was gone.
At his lowest points in the ’70s, Bowie descended into cocaine addiction and paranoia. By his later years, though, he was living a more traditional life as a devoted husband to his second wife, supermodel and cosmetics mogul Iman, and their daughter, Alexandria (he also has a son, Duncan — now a filmmaker — with his first wife, Angie), and ended his days as a beloved Manhattan fixture (with a country home in Woodstock).
After a lifetime of shape-shifting, this was possibly David Bowie’s greatest transformation of all.
Alan Light is a longtime music journalist and author of What Happened, Miss Simone?, a Nina Simone biography inspired by the 2015 Netflix documentary.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.