David Bowie Was an Emissary From Our Own Hyper-Personalized Future

His insistent, playful shape-shifting helped to create a freer, more individualized world.


David Bowie, who died yesterday after a year-and-a-half battle with cancer, was weird even for a rock star.

Like Bob Dylan, Bowie was a shape-shifter and a persona-generator who over the course of dozens of records and film and TV appearances was constantly evolving, mutating, and maybe most important of all, obviously enjoying himself.

He was a one-man Ovid, constantly metamorphosing, first from folkie David Jones (his given name) to space-rock weirdo to a glam monarch to Berlin degenerate to bi-sexual androgyne to "Thin White Duke" to New Wave and MTV pop master to heavy metal kid to elder rock god to you name it.

Some of these incarnations were much more successful than others—in the '80s, Richard Butler of The Psychedelic Furs reportedly slagged Bowie, not without some justice, as "a boring old fart"—but the point isn't that they all worked. It's that he constantly kept trying different things that yet all remained unmistakably Bowie, including his final jazz-inflected album, Blackstar, released just days before his death.

Bowie exemplified what anthropologist and sometime Reason contributor Grant McCracken 20 years ago called "plenitude," or the quickening "speciation" of human social types. The postwar period and especially the last decades of the 20th century, argued McCracken, saw a vast profusion of the sorts of people walking the streets of our cities and towns:

In the late 20th century, there has been a quickening "speciation" among social groups. Teens, for example, were once understood in terms of those who were cool and those who weren't. But in a guided tour of mall life a few years ago, I had 15 types of teen lifestyle pointed out to me, including heavy-metal rockers, surfer-skaters, b-girls, goths, and punks. Each of these groups sported their own fashion and listened to their own music. The day of the universally known Top 40 list is gone.

Gender types are proliferating. Whole new categories of powerful, forthright femaleness have emerged, while "maleness" is undergoing its own florescence. Gayness, which used to mean adhering to a limited number of public behavioral models, has rapidly subdivided into numerous subgroups. Many of these groups have developed their own literature, music, and even retail communities. They have become social worlds.

New species of social life can form everywhere: around rock groups (Deadheads); football teams (Raider fans); TV series (Trekkies); leisure activities (line dancers); means of transport (Hell's Angels); sports (Ultimate Frisbee); movies (The Rocky Picture Horror Show); technology (geeks).

Read the full article here.

We're all mutants these days, and that's a good thing, especially if we, like Bowie, are directing our own personal evolution.

If plenitude had an advance man, a John the Baptist, it was Bowie, whose playfulness was as insistent as it was daunting and endearing. The first time I remember encountering his visage was in a TV Guide ad for a TV appearance—or was it a full-blown special? who knows?—around the time that his 1973 album Pinups was released (I would have been around 10 years old).

Even in an era of countless shows and movies built around high-tech androids, intensive inspection of human corpses, celebrity sex tapes, and drag shows, the image is still pretty freaky and beautiful in great and unsettling ways. Is he male or female? Are those faces masks that would reveal flesh and blood if removed or high-tech circuitry. What exactly do the bodies look like? Weird, wild stuff for 1973. When I showed the picture to my parents, who were born in the 1920s and stopped keeping up with popular music before Sinatra needed a comeback, they grimaced and shook their heads not in disgust exactly, because they couldn't even really apprehend the image.

As with most celebrities and creative types, Bowie wasn't exactly sharp when it came to discussing things beyond his core competencies of music and brilliant weirdness. In a notorious 1976 Playboy interview, he said, "I believe very strongly in fascism" and called Hitler the "first rock star" while standing by everything he said "except the inflammatory remarks." He apologized for all this and more eventually, noting that he was not only young at the time but usually wasted out of his mind.

But only fools and thralls look to celebrities and artists—especially rock stars—for moral instruction and political programs. We're wiser to look toward them for inspiration and ideas on how we might expand our own horizons and think about our possibilities. In this sense, Bowie acted as an emissary from our own future, where we all feel more comfortable not just being who we are but trying out different things to see who we might become.

And unlike many rock stars, Bowie created continuity with earlier forms of popular music, not only by covering various old songs but by incongruously appearing with Bing Crosby on der Bingle's 1977 "Merrie Olde Christmas TV Special," which gave birth to the enduringly odd duet of "Peace on Earth/The Little Drummer Boy." I have no memory of watching that show with my parents, but we must have watched it together, as they never missed a Bing special and they typically enforced a must-watch rule on their kids. Worlds collide when Bowie shows up and joshes through third-rate patter with Bing before sitting down and belting out a couple of tunes together.

And what must my parents have thought when Bowie returned later in the show to brilliantly perform "Heroes," replete with mime moves? I don't know what they were thinking, but I know I was never the same again.

Bonus video: In 1987's "Concert For Berlin," Bowie played "Heroes," a song that name-checks the Berlin Wall, within earshot of the GDR. It's a tremendous, must-watch performance.

The government of Germany tweeted a tribute to Bowie, calling that concert, two years before the Wall was torn down (and mere weeks before Ronald Reagan's exhortation to "tear down this wall"), an imporant step in ending communist domination of East Germany: "Good-bye, David Bowie… Thank you for helping to bring down the #wall."

In 2003, he memorably recounted the emotions surrounding that performance:

Elena Cresci, Twitter

Hat tip: Elena Cresci's Twitter feed.

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  1. Biggest surprise in this entirely predictable post hoc libertarianization of a music icon is that Nick knows who John the Baptist is.

    1. Wait, Bowie was decapitated to satisfy King Herod???? Why has that been mentioned anywhere else?!?

    2. And that for a guy who’d stated he was a strong believer in fascism. Who knows? If he’d cranked out a few music videos, perhaps Hitler himself might have found redemption as a libertarian hero.

  2. I once dated an Icelandic concert organizer. I have very fond memories of her, one of which was getting to meet David Bowie. He was a remarkably nice guy, who when not performing, seemed very down to earth. He was impossible to dislike.

    I have a sad.

    1. That is awesome. I have a friend who worked for Sony entertainment in the late 80s and met Bowie. She said the same thing. He was a true English gentleman in person. As nice a guy as you could meet.

    2. I once dated an Icelandic concert organizer. I have very fond memories of her, one of which was getting to meet David Bowie. He was a remarkably nice guy, who when not performing, seemed very down to earth. He was impossible to dislike.

      My friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend Bowie story involved an old couple vacationing in Switzerland for a week in the late ’80s/early ’90s. Bowie was their neighbor, and he had them over for drinks or dinner several times. They got home, told their family about this nice wealthy gentleman they had befriended, and were surprised when they were informed he was a rock star.

      I don’t know whether that story is actually true, but I like it.

      1. Well, if you’re famous, it must be nice to be able to mingle with nice people who don’t know who you are.

    3. “seemed very down to earth”

      Well of course he was down to earth.

      1. You might say he “fell to earth”.

  3. Without David Bowe, there would have been no New Wave, no U2, no Madonna or much of anything else that was significant in the 1980s music scene. David Bowe was a dominating presence over the 1980s. Other artists have dominated the decades in which they rose to fame. Bowe is the only one who dominated the following decade more so than he ever did the one he arose in. Elvis is likely the only other person you could say that about and even that is debatable given the influence Bob Dylan had on the 60s.

    1. And let’s face it, “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” may be the greatest album name ever.

      1. It really is. And it is a great record. I am not a huge Bowie fan but that is a great record.

        1. Yes it is. As a teen in small town Minnesota I rejected the whole androgynous thing being gay ….but then came Ziggy Stardust. One of the 10 best rock and roll albums ever. Right up there with Exile on Main Street, Layla, Allman Brothers live at the Fillmore.

          Rock and roll at it’s best. Then when he got into the crooning stage with Fame and Let’s Dance it was very well done unlike his contemporary Rod Stewart who put out schlock after great rock and roll with the Faces and Every Picture Tells a Story, another top 10 rock and roll album.

          An innovative person….too bad he checked out….

          I only know the lyrics by heart from a few albums…American Beauty and workingmans Dead, Exile, Live at the Fillmore. All learned when the sentiments pertained to my status in life at the time. Ziggy is one of them, I know every lick and vocal from that album 40 years later.

          “Ziggy played guitar, jamming good with weird and gilly, and the Spiders from Mars”. Classic.

      2. “To be played at maximum volume” the label on the 8-track read. 🙂

  4. I’m too sad to even make a Lou Reed joke. RIP, Ziggy.

    1. I made one on the last thread. It is sad we lost Bowie but at least Lou Reed is still alive. I mean if he died Reason would have told us about it.

    2. Be glad Bowie got one more post than Lou Reed.

      1. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing you guys REASON had some comically absurd number of posts about Lou Reed dying.

  5. I picked up my copy of Blackstar this afternoon, got home and while ripping it saw the news. I can’t bear to listen to it right now. So I’m listening to the isolated vocal track from Space Oddity instead

    1. Very cool, thanks for posting.

    2. What, no fat little man so the millenials recognize him?

    3. Thank you, haunting.

  6. Gender types are proliferating.

    Huh. I thought we were still on two.

    1. Get off sloop’s lawn.

    2. We are – just that there are some ignoramuses who haven’t yet gotten the memo.

  7. Well what a crappy way to begin a week.

  8. Bowie was a musical chameleon and genius. His ability to create music that was both ahead of its time as well as enjoyable (no small feat) may never be matched in the age of auto tune and packaged stardom. He will most certainly be sadly missed by me.

    It’s pretty cool wondering which, and how many, XM stations will be doing an all-Bowie day today and still manage to stay true to their format.

  9. Patton Oswalt on twitter: Get ready for some serious double takes today, Tilda Swinton. #RIPDavidBowie

  10. Bowie also appeared in some films – I remember seeing him in The Prestige as Nikola Tesla and thinking “Well, if that’s David Bowie, but I totally buy him as Tesla, he must be a pretty good actor.”

    I also heard he played a Goblin King in some other movie that I haven’t gotten around to seeing but I’m sure that’s a fine performance in a fine movie, too.

    1. He was also in that movie about a guy wasn’t able to turn right… or something.

      Oh, and he was also in that movie where an English prisoner of war spoke broken Japanese.

    2. The Labyrinth will always be the best Bowie role.

      1. Labyrinth on window pane is the best Bowie role if you know what I mean.
        I give thanks for all you have left behind. My life would have been different without your existence.
        Emotional, charismatic, moving…RIP duke.

    3. I remember his psychotic hitman in “Into the Night,” too, partly because it was an odd character to appear in a mostly light caper movie.

  11. Bowie exemplified what anthropologist and sometime Reason contributor Grant McCracken 20 years ago called “plenitude,” or the quickening “speciation” of human social types.

    Why don’t you simply accept that the guy was a businessman and a shrewd self-promoter, and not really some kind of presage?

    1. If it’s just vibrations moving through the air, how come stirs something almost uncontrollable in my body?

  12. He was a one-man Ovid

    You know who else was a one-man Ovid?

  13. My first job out of High School was at St Paul and over the next 5 years Iearned so very much. Seeing the hospital torn down tears a small piece of my heart out. The Daughters of Charity and the doctors and staff of St Paul Hospital will always be with me.

    1. what is it with you a$$holes?

  14. Bowie ‘n Bing? Almost as good as Steve Martin on “Bob Hope’s World Series Salute to Baseball”! (Video sadly lacking)

    1. Thanks for that.

  15. Probably the best thing Bowie did was market himself properly in the US. Bryan Ferry will probably get the same treatment as Bowie in Europe when he dies, but I highly doubt,, or Reason is going to waste a pixel over it.

    And to my mind, every bit as cutting edge and responsible for new wave of the 80’s as Bowie was. It’s not that Ferry and Roxy Music didn’t sell in America, I just think Bowie tried harder to sell and market and this is the result.

    1. Well, they all got a little bit of my money back in the day.

  16. My first job out of High School was at St Paul and over the next 5 years Iearned so very much. Seeing the hospital torn down tears a small piece of my heart out. The Daughters of Charity and the doctors and staff of St Paul Hospital will always be with me.

    1. get a life

  17. I was reading his obituary and discovered that he’s the one who sings the ubiquitous “Let’s Dance” song.

    My impression of him as Nikola Tesla in “The Prestige” was that he sounds almost exactly like San Neill.

    1. I was reading his obituary and discovered that he’s the one who sings the ubiquitous “Let’s Dance” song.

      That was him. And the guitar part on that was played by Stevie Ray Vaughn.

    2. You have so much learning to do, young one.

  18. “Like Bob Dylan”? Aside from also changing his name, David Bowie is NOTHING like Bob Dylan. Or rather Bob Dylan is NOTHING like David Bowie. Bob Dylan as a “shape-shifter”? What did Bob Dylan shift? He has sung the same songs in the same voice his whole career. David Bowie was a fantastic performer who reinvented himself constantly.

    One of the great things about Bowie is that he never took himself so seriously. As a fan of Bowie in my small town high school, I was given a creative outlet. More importantly I learned not to take anything too seriously. He was androgynous. So what. It was just something he was. There was a lot of androgynousness at that time. The difference between then and now is that everyone is so incomprehensibly SERIOUS. “Glam rock” was simply fun. There was really no more meaning to it than that.

    Today we have lost the fun in the music. The playfulness that Bowie was luckily able to portray and give to us his fans. Today it wouldn’t go over mainly because as a society we have lost the fun in life. Political correctness has overtaken every area of our lives. We can’t compliment a co-worker, tell a joke, or have a political opinion without the full faith and credit of the US reigning down on us.

    So when Bowie sang with Bing Crosby it was just fun — for everyone including Bing Crosby. For instance Bing never sang a duet with Bob Dylan.

    David Bowie was simply Bowie — unlike anyone — especially Bob Dylan.

    RIP David Bowie

  19. My first job out of High School was at St Paul and over the next 5 years Iearned so very much. Seeing the hospital torn down tears a small piece of my heart out. The Daughters of Charity and the doctors and staff of St Paul Hospital will always be with me.

    1. Piss off.

  20. This is my only real memory of David Bowie. I have a lot of Bing Crosby Christmas songs and this was one of them.

    I hear “Let’s Dance” in adult contemporary radio station all the time and assumed someone like Pat Boone sung it. Weird.

    From what little Youtube videos of his music I’ve listened to, I can’t say I’m a fan. He looks like a sexy bleached skeleton in some of his rock music vids. I assumed he sounded like Depeche Mode or something.

    1. I genuinely feel sorry for you. The same way I’d feel sorry for a blind or deaf person.

      1. I have different taste in music.

        If I wanted to listen to colorful man rocking out, I’ll listen to Queen or something.

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  22. “in the ’80s, Richard Butler of The Psychedelic Furs reportedly slagged Bowie, not without some justice, as “a boring old fart””

    Pretty ironic considering he ripped his entire vocal style straight from Bowie. And that’s not even a criticism!

    1. The “boring old fart” thing was largely a marketing ploy, which obviously worked because we’re talking about it thirty years later, someone probably looked up the Psychedelic Furs, and might just have become a fan.

      Johnny Rotten slagged all the prog bands, but he listened to some of them. The point was to get the press, who HAD to agree that the early 70’s stuff had seen better days, to put Band X’s name in print.

      Extremely tangential, but anyway,

  23. So much of what Bowie created happened before most commenters were of age, or even born. Bowie’s music was so far out from the stuffy 50’s, even as much as the hippie 60’s who thought their music was cutting edge, Bowie took it to a whole new level. He didn’t follow anyone, he was the original (inner) space invader. If you didn’t like it, you didn’t have to listen. Any public criticism certainly didn’t affect his musical direction.
    Somewhere out there in Internet land, there is a PBS documentary (1985?) on Bowie, in it there is film of people waiting in line in 1973 for the doors to open for the show. I was there (I didn’t make the screen shot) but the comments my friends made for the camera are cringe-worthy hearing them today, but it was an innocent time and I miss it.

  24. I was never the biggest Bowie fan, but I must say he has my immense respect for going out the way he obviously chose. He suffered his affliction in private while still working on his art and left his fans with one last album. Many lesser characters would have rode the press all the way to the grave. Hats off, Mr Jones.

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