When David Bowie left this mortal coil last year to join the great party in the sky, he left behind a legacy as rock music’s greatest futurist. In addition to being remembered as its most talented chameleon, Bowie embraced art, technology and various cultural forms in ways that few other artists and musicians did.
David Bowie arguably shone less brightly on the charts as various other artists at their peak, but his brilliance endured throughout the decades. While The Rolling Stones or The Beatles represent a sort of fixed ideal of musician as celebrity, Bowie was an iconoclast: he reinvented himself and remained all while retaining a difficult to define essence of being Bowie.
Here’s how David Bowie was always light years ahead of us.
8. Bowie was in a video game before it was cool.
These days, video games are the coolest entertainment medium a performer can be in. Big stars like Ellen Page and Kevin Spacey secure juicy roles on the biggest titles while cult classics create instant fandom for performers like Nolan North and Ashley Johnson. In 1999, Bowie signed on with Quantic Dream to contribute music and his likeness to Omikron: The Nomad Soul.
7. Bowie launched his own Internet service provider.
And it was exactly as awesome as you imagine. BowieNet acted like just about any other ISP, providing access to the internet, website hosting and e-mail at a monthly subscription, except with a cooler domain than “Online World Dot Net.” Bowie saw the internet as a way to get closer to fans. “If I was 19 again, I’d bypass music and go right to the internet,” he said at the time.
6. Bowie used financial tools to get the rights to his music back.
In 1997, Bowie worked with investment banker David Pullman to create bonds backed by the revenue of 25 albums he recorded before 1990. These Bowie Bonds were bought by Prudential Insurance Company of America for $55 million. Effectively speaking, Bowie forfeited ten years’ worth of royalties in exchange for this cash, which he used to buy out the rights to albums he was sharing with his former manager, in the end, acquiring full control of his entire back catalog.
5. Bowie confronted the lack of black artists on MTV before they were in vogue.
“There seem to be a lot of black artists making very good videos that I’m surprised aren’t used on MTV,” opines Bowie in a 1983 MTV interview. “Should it not be a challenge [for MTV to take on] to make the media far more integrated?” Bowie asks. The confrontation is telling, as it reveals that Bowie did much work to unpack his flirtations with problematic ideologies throughout the mid-1970s.
4. Bowie predicted the future of music distribution and consumption.
In the days before Metallica was suing the hell out of Napster, Bowie was one of the first major artists to speak openly about the future of digitally distributed music. “Independent companies keen to do real online downloading […] will become so popular that corporations will have to capitulate,” Bowie said. Today we stream and download music through services like iTunes and Spotify like it’s no big deal.
3. Bowie knew the value of an online presence before social media.
BowieNet was more than just a star brand ISP, it was also an early form of social networking. Through it Bowie gave users access to a voluminous archive of music, photos and videos. But it also gave him a means to communicate directly to his fans. Before Twitter, Instagram and even MySpace, Bowie made himself an accessible personality through live chat, video Q&A and forum posts.
2. Bowie anticipated musical trends, sometimes a little too soon.
Bowie had a penchant for adopting different styles and music forms ahead of the music industry. He incorporated and promoted black American soul music with Young Americans and co-pioneered ambient electronic stylings on Low and “Heroes.” Such albums were often received poorly but have gone on as essential listening from the Bowie ouevre.
1. Bowie embraced the fluidity of identity through reinvention.
Spend a few minutes looking through the videos and art backing Bowie’s extensive discography and you’ll see a hundred different faces: alien, duke and prophet, astronaut, diva and postmodern pop star. He bent gender and sexuality for the people in manner that was playful and positive. But more importantly, he shed his personas with willingness and ease. If only we were all so good at embracing the future and never looking back.
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