It's difficult to fathom a world without David Bowie: beyond the recent release of his terrific final album "Blackstar" on his 69th birthday (just two days before his death), Bowie seemed eternal, ever-evolving as an artist, a pop culture icon and a beacon of hope for the weird and the alienated. It's no exaggeration to call him one of the 20th century's most significant artists in any form. His constant reinvention of music and image served as a model for artists ranging from Radiohead to Madonna, Talking Heads to Kanye West, be it in music, in image, in early exploration of music videos or more.
Bowie went through dozens of images and personas over nearly fifty years of music: spaceman Ziggy Stardust, Americanized Ziggy Aladdin Sane, British glam-soul icon, cocaine cabaret artist The Thin White Duke, avant-garde experimenter, New Wave hero. He zigged and zagged between baroque pop and ambient minmalism, excelling at nearly every musical form he took on.
This is to say nothing of his small but inspired filmography, which saw him as an alienated alien ("The Man Who Fell to Earth"), a godlike vampire ("The Hunger"), a sexually charismatic Goblin King ("Labyrinth"), an unusually sympathetic Pontius Pilate ("The Last Temptation of Christ"), a wigged-out FBI agent ("Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me"), a magical Nikola Tesla ("The Prestige"), and as the ultimate master of the universe, himself ("Zoolander").
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It also barely takes into account his enormous impact on fashion, or his influence on the career revivals of both Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, or the continuing power of nearly every one of his songs that appeared in movies. The latter are legion, from the battle cry of "Cat People" in "Inglourious Basterds" to the chilling use of "Young Americans" in Lars von Trier's "Dogville" and the exuberance of "Modern Love" in Leos Carax' "Mauvais Sang" and Noah Baumbach's "Frances Ha."
Still, the best and most significant for me will always be "Life on Mars?" in Wes Anderson's underrated "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou." I was 14 when the film hit theaters, at that point a fledgling Bowie fan (I owned "Ziggy Stardust" and "Aladdin Sane") and unfamiliar with Anderson's earlier work. The song's piano intro plays quietly as Zissou (Bill Murray) is encountered with the news that an old flame's son (Owen Wilson) may be his own, not long after Zissou's best friend was killed by a shark. Zissou makes all sorts of excuses for why he hasn't tried to be a father ("she never contacted me"), but he's still quietly shaken, and the chorus swells as he breaks off to smoke a joint. It's a moment of endings and beginnings, the loss of an old friend and gain of a new, possibly greater one, and the inability to immediately process it all.
I was emotionally affected by the scene at the time, and I can scarcely revisit it without getting choked up, both for its impact on the scene and in my appreciation of two artists, Anderson (who quickly became one of my favorite filmmakers) and Bowie, whose work I explored more fully soon after. My favorite Bowie albums have switched over time, from the glam-defining "Ziggy" to the ambient "Low," but what I appreciated more than any single album or period of work was how easily he shifted between them. Identity was a key theme in his work and his image, and he suggested that it could and should always change, and that "you're not alone" (to borrow a line from "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide") in any of it.
He stayed vital right up to his last two albums, 2013's "The Next Day" and this year's "Blackstar," which was released to critical acclaim only to take on instantaneous new significance upon his death and the reveal that it was recorded while he battled liver cancer. The album reflects that, standing as one of the bleakest in his career. Yet it feels not like a howl of despair, but a way of saying goodbye, of coming to terms with death. The final song, "I Can't Give Everything Away," musically echoes "Soul Love" in verses before it hits a soaring chorus, an impossibly elegiac ending for a perfect career. Heard a few days before his death, it's already beautiful and contemplative. Taken with what we now know, it's downright courageous.