Rock legend and cultural icon David Bowie died Sunday, two days after his 69th birthday, following an 18-month battle with cancer. A post on his Facebook page says he died peacefully, surrounded by family.
And while it’s impossible to know Bowie’s thoughts in his final hours, it’s not hard to imagine that one of the most important artists in popular music spent his final hours much as he lived his entire life: fearlessly.
- 1996 Hall of Fame Inductee
- 25 studio albums
- 111 single hits
- 140 million records sold worldwide
Hundreds of adjectives could describe Bowie, and they’ll all appear in tributes from artists and fans around the world today. “Influential” is so obvious it hardly seems to cover it: In the context of popular music and culture, he practically reinvented the word. The same is true for “experimental,” “iconic” or “unique.”
But the word we keep coming back to is “fearless.” Bowie did whatever he wanted to, consequences be damned. The safe route was never an option. Bowie wasn’t as interested in the road less traveled so much as the road riddled with landmines.
In the 1980s, MTV not only actually played music videos — it was one of the biggest platforms in the world for exposing audiences to pop music. MTV could make or break your career, even if you were an established star. And for an artist as visually creative as Bowie, music videos provided the perfect medium.
Bowie’s videos for “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fashion” from 1980’s “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)” remained in solid rotation on the network in 1982, when Bowie took a huge bite out of the hand that fed him. He used his popularity to challenge MTV’s awful track record (at that time) of playing videos by black artists.
“Why are there practically no blacks on the network?” he asked in a live interview, following with: “There seem to be a lot of black artists making very good videos that I’m surprised aren’t being used on MTV.”
Bowie also popularized the notions of fluidity in sexual orientation and playing with gender norms decades before they would come close to mainstream acceptance.
Gay, straight, bisexual — he acknowledged all three at times, yet he ultimately refused to be labeled so reductively. That obviously remains a sensitive topic to many in 2016, much less when Bowie first went on the record about it in 1972. He later acknowledged that being so open about his sexuality hurt his career in America.
Many pop artists search for a sound and a look that will score with audiences and stick with that; it’s practically a law in today’s culture, where your “brand” must be concretely defined and reinforced.
Bowie said to hell with that from day one. His catalog is a wonderland of diverse musical genres and styles, covering everything from glam rock and pop to soul, cabaret, dance, EDM, hard rock, jazz — frankly, you might as well list everything.
It’s impossible to cover all the ways in which Bowie influenced music, art and fashion, and in which those influences will continue long past his death. But we should never forget that great art absolutely requires courage, and Bowie was as fearless as they come.