Artist Profile: David Bowie

David Bowie, born in 1947, was a pioneer of genre-bending sound and built the archetype for shapeshifting personas in the music industry. His career started in 1962 and when he began playing in school-age bands such as Davy Jones & the Lower Third and David Bowie & The Hype, but he settled as a soloist in 1967. His self-titled first-release David Bowie was a commercial flop, but the young Bowie clearly had potential in spades. His sophomore album, Space Oddity, hit new heights when the single “Space Oddity” soared to top 5 in the UK chart. Bowie’s popularity grew from then on, helped along by past Hype band members Tony Visconti, Woody Woodmansey, and Mick Ronson. While already popular in the UK, Bowie’s American audience grew with his fifth album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in 1973. This glam-rock effort proved to be a  massive success and Ziggy Stardust—an androgynous alien-like figure from Mars who was accompanied by his band The Spiders from Mars—became Bowie’s most iconic persona. For this character, Bowie shaved his eyebrows, donned a crown of orange spiky hair, and transformed his face with a coat of glittery makeup. He also sought the talents of designer Kansai Yamamoto to create a wardrobe of over-the-top costumes inspired by Japanese culture. Despite their massive popularity, Ziggy and the Spiders from Mars did not last long. During a performance in 1974, Bowie declared that it would be his last show. But like many celebrities before and after him, this retirement would prove to be impermanent. Bowie chose instead to ditch his “Ziggy” persona and move on in his career, trading the glam-rock aesthetic for a more pulled-back and sophisticated look.

At the height of a tireless addiction to cocaine, Bowie released his tenth album Station to Station, an experimental mash-up of soul, ballad, and rock. The instrumentals clank like machinery, mixing with Bowie’s panicked vocals to craft a harsher sound. The stark shift in musical style was accompanied by an equally bold change in identity, birthing a new persona: the Thin White Duke. With slicked-back orange hair and a proper suit, Bowie used this character to play with themes associated with occult and right-wing politics. After becoming sober upon moving to Berlin, Bowie crashed into the 1980s with the single “Ashes to Ashes” which references an earlier character, Major Tom, from Bowie’s debut hit: “Space Oddity.” It discusses Bowie’s past cocaine addiction with the lyrics: “Ashes to ashes, funk to funky, we know Major Tom’s a junky.” Bowie’s next and most commercially successful hit was “Let’s Dance,” an enjoyable but lyrically dull pop song that catapulted him into the mainstream once again. Changing his image, Bowie switched to a powder-blue oversized suit and bleached his hair platinum, becoming a likable pop star in line with his new, young audience. David Bowie changed himself and his musical direction many times during his long and tumultuous career and ultimately became known as a legendary artist, inspiring many creators today to follow their own paths.

Written by: Sienna Russell-Edwards