Musical Personas of David Bowie
For over five decades, David Bowie's career was marked by reinvention and visual presentation. His music and stagecraft significantly influencing popular music. During his lifetime, his record sales estimated at 140 million albums worldwide, made him one of the world's best-selling music artists.
Some performers make use of a persona, the independent characters used in the artist's shows and albums. In music, a persona does not always mean a change. Bob Dylan's charisma is due largely to his almost stereotyped image, always with a harmonica, guitar, and with his distinctive hair, nasal voice, and clothing. The persona also serves to claim a right or to draw attention to a certain subject, like Marilyn Manson and his interest in death and morbidity.
This article explores Bowie's personas or alter egos that he developed to facilitate a unique performance. Before Bowie, the Beatles created Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band identity in 1967. However, Bowie's unique personas have been influencing pop stars performing today. He has been constructing multiple identities for decades, exploring artistic expression by changing his appearance from top to toe.
Below are some of the standout and surprising David Bowie personas over time:
|David Bowie in 1967|
David Bowie developed an interest in music as a child, eventually studying art, music and design before embarking on a professional career as a musician. In 1962 Bowie formed his first band at the age of 15, The Konrads. He left and joined other bands several times, but their songs had no commercial success.
|David Bowie in 1967|
Bowie's 1967 solo single, "The Laughing Gnome", failed to chart. His album debut, David Bowie, an amalgam of pop, psychedelia, and music hall, met the same fate.
"Space Oddity", single from David Bowie second album
The original cover of The Man Who Sold the World (1970) and Hunky Dory (1971) show Bowie's androgynous appearance.
Dressed in striking and eccentric costumes, his hair dyed reddish-brown, Bowie appeared as Ziggy Stardust, his flamboyant and androgynous alter ego. He launched his Ziggy Stardust stage show at the Toby Jug pub in Tolworth on 10 February 1972. The show was hugely popular, catapulting him to stardom.
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972), combining the hard rock elements with the lighter experimental rock and pop. The album charted rapidly and Ziggy Stardust Tour to the United States.
Bowie's love of acting led his total immersion in the characters he created for his music. His Ziggy shows, were ultra-theatrical affairs filled with shocking stage moments, such as Bowie stripping down to a sumo wrestling loincloth or simulating oral sex with Ronson's guitar.
Aladdin Sane (1973) topped the UK chart, became Bowie's first number-one album. Although technically a new Bowie 'character', Aladdin Sane was essentially a development of Ziggy Stardust in his appearance and persona. Aladdin Sane was described by Bowie himself as simply "Ziggy goes to America". Most of the tracks were observations he composed on the road during his 1972 US tour.
"Life on Mars?", a song from David Bowie's 1971 album, Hunky Dory. The song released as a single in June 1973 and peaked at No. 3 on the UK Singles Chart.
Diamond Dogs (1974), parts of which found him heading towards soul and funk, was the product of two distinct ideas: a musical based on a wild future in a post-apocalyptic city, and setting George Orwell's 1984 to music. The album went to number one in the UK, spawning the hits "Rebel Rebel" and "Diamond Dogs".
The album cover features Bowie as half man, half dog. The lead character of Diamond Dogs is Halloween Jack, a cool cat who lives in the declining “Hunger City”.
Bowie's style changed towards Young Americans (1975). The album yielded Bowie's first US number one, "Fame", co-written with John Lennon, who contributed backing vocals, and Carlos Alomar. In a 1976 Playboy interview, Bowie described Young Americans as "the definitive plastic soul record. It's the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak, written and sung by a white limey." Plastic soul is a term coined during the 1960s by popular black musicians to describe Mick Jagger, a white musician singing soul music.
Station to Station (1976) introduced a new Bowie persona, "The Thin White Duke". Visually, the character was an extension of Thomas Jerome Newton, the extraterrestrial being he portrayed in the film The Man Who Fell to Earth.
|The Thin White Duke|
Station to Station's synthesizer-heavy arrangements prefigured the krautrock-influenced music of his next releases. The album was followed by a 3½-month-long concert tour of Europe and North America. Featuring a starkly lit set, the Isolar. During this period, drug addiction was affecting Bowie.
The tour was highly successful but mired in political controversy. Bowie was quoted in Stockholm as saying that "Britain could benefit from a Fascist leader", and was detained by customs on the Russian/Polish border for possessing Nazi paraphernalia. Also, Bowie's positive comments about Adolf Hitler, and Eric Clapton's about immigration restrictions in 1976, led to the establishment of Rock Against Racism. Bowie later blamed his pro-fascism comments and his behaviour during the period on his drug addiction and the character of the Thin White Duke.
Scary Monsters and Super Creeps (1980) produced the number-one hit "Ashes to Ashes" and revisiting the character of Major Tom from "Space Oddity". The album's hard rock edge included conspicuous guitar contributions from Robert Fripp, Chuck Hammer and Pete Townshend.
|David Bowie in the gaudy Pierrot costume in "Ashes to Ashes" music video|
Bowie paired with Queen in 1981 for a one-off single release, "Under Pressure". The duet was a hit, becoming Bowie's third UK number-one single. Bowie reached his peak of popularity and commercial success in 1983 with Let's Dance. The album went platinum in both the UK and the US. Stevie Ray Vaughan was guest guitarist playing solo on "Let's Dance". Let's Dance was followed by the Serious Moonlight Tour. The world tour lasted six months.
|David Bowie during Serious Moonlight Tour|
Between March until September 1990, Bowie performing his early hits during the seven-month Sound+Vision Tour. A remixed version of "Fame" was released in 1990 to coincide with the Sound+Vision Tour. The song is on David Bowie's compilation album which released in 1990, Changesbowie.
The music video of "Fame" (remixed version), in which David Bowie shows his dance skills
Bowie's quasi-industrial Outside (1995) was originally conceived as the first volume in a non-linear narrative of art and murder. Featuring characters from a short story written by Bowie. On 7 January 1997, Bowie celebrated his half century with a 50th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden, New York. During this time, he appeared with spiky hair and wore an earring in his left ear.
Bowie's twenty-fifth and final studio album was released on 8 January 2016, coinciding with Bowie's 69th birthday. Two days after its release, Bowie died of liver cancer. He recorded Blackstar while suffering from liver cancer, his illness was not made public until he died. The title track was released as the album's lead single on 19 November 2015. The second single, "Lazarus", was released on 17 December 2015.
"Lazarus" music video was released on 7 January 2016, three days before Bowie's death
The music on Blackstar has been characterised as incorporating art rock, jazz, and experimental rock, as well as elements from industrial rock, folk-pop and hip hop. Upon release, the album was met with commercial success, topping charts in a number of countries in the wake of Bowie's death. At the 59th Annual Grammy Awards, the album won awards for Best Alternative Music Album, Best Engineered Album Non-Classical, Best Recording Package, and the title single won Best Rock Performance, and Best Rock Song.