David Bowie And What It Means To Be A True Icon
Iconic is not a word that retains much value these days.
So beloved by marketing people and influencers, iconic is, as any quick google search will show, used to describe anything from photos and buildings, hotels and chefs, musicians and footballers, and, of course, brands.
Which is not to say that genuinely iconic figures don’t exist, or at least used to.
And none carried this heavy burden so effortlessly more than David Bowie, who passed away on this day three years ago, and for whom the word might as well have been invented.
Since he left us at the age of 69, there’s been a Bowie-shaped hole in popular culture that is unlikely to be filled any time soon, if ever.
It would take 700 books, never mind 700 words, to put into context just how much of an impact Bowie has had on several generations since. Fashion, music, film; he has left fingerprints on all.
Bowie is in the moments.
In 1969, “Space Oddity” gave us the immortal line “ground control to Major Tom”, which astronauts have actually sung in space since.
“Life on Mars?” then took us to other worlds in 1971.
And performing “Starman” on his first appearance on Top of The Pops in July 1972, Bowie knew his big moment had come. A knowing look into the camera; a pointed finger at the audience; and a “I had to phone someone so I picked on you” line later, and just like that, he blew our minds.
Bowie's memorable Top of the Pops moment (at 1.34)
Ziggy Stardust became the most iconic of his many personas.
There were low points, like a period of drug addiction that almost destroyed him during his Thin White Duke period. And to this day many fans have never forgiven him for the alleged Nazi salute outside Victoria Station in London as well as spouting right-wing sentiments. Bowie first denied, and then blamed his addictions for, his actions. It remains a major stain on his reputation.
And the least said about “Dancing in the Street”, a cringeworthy duet with Mick Jagger recorded for Live Aid in 1985, the better.
The period of brilliant, chaotic excellence in the 70s gave way in the early 80s to a more reformed, aware Bowie, and though his music remained varied, and always experimental, after that, it would never hit the heights of his ingenious early output.
Bowie is in the details.
And few artists, with exception of the Beatles and Bob Dylan perhaps, have inspired as much painstaking, nuanced analysis.
Watch 2012 wonderful one-hour film “Dave” on Vimeo for a lovingly crafted collage of his best songs and iconography. Or check out British GQ Editor Dylan Jones’s definitive 2017 autobiography, “David Bowie: A Life”. Or the thousands of articles that followed his passing.
Ultimately, Bowie is in the songs.
There’s only one place for newcomers –and your only excuse is if you were born in the last 12 or 13 years – and that is “The Singles 1969 to 1993 - Featuring His Greatest Hits”. Or, to paraphrase Alan Partridge, the best of David Bowie.
If you’re taking your first steps into the Bowie-verse, you are unlikely to appreciate just how lucky you are. Imagine hearing, for the first time, songs like “Space Oddity”, “Changes”, “Starman”, “Ziggy Stardust”, “The Jean Genie”, “Life on Mars?”, “Rebel Rebel”, “Rock & Roll Suicide”, “Diamond Dogs”, “Young Americans”, “Fame”, “Golden Years”, “Sound & Vision”, “Beauty & The Beast”.
Wait, that’s just some of the songs on side one.
Then there’s the magnificent “Heroes”, arguably his best song, “Ashes to Ashes”, “Fashion”, “Scary Monsters”, “Under Pressure” (featuring Queen), “Let's Dance”, “China Girl”, “Modern Love”, “Blue Jean”, and “Absolute Beginners”.
It’s the musical equivalent of opening Tutankhamun’s tomb and even that hyperbolic comparison will fail to contextualise the miracle of such a peerless collection of songs.
Once you’re done with the crash course, you can go back and listen to the early albums, and only then should you tackle his post-mid-90s career, all the way to the admittedly haunting “Blackstar”, released on January 8, 2016, Bowie’s birthday, and two days before he succumbed to cancer.
Just like that the Starman returned to the sky. Iconic, even in death.
And when Bowie’s ashes were scattered in Bali three years ago, perhaps the word iconic should have been cast to the wind with them.