The Irish Times view: The world mourns the death of a Starman

David Bowie retained a keen curiosity in what was happening on the margins, and an unrivalled ability to bring those ideas to a broader audience

 

David Bowie was sometimes described as a chameleon, because of his brilliantly inventive shedding of multiple skins and personas. But a chameleon seeks to blend into its surroundings. Bowie never blended. He was one of the most recognisable faces of popular culture over five decades. He achieved that through a brilliant fusion of his own glaring contradictions and paradoxes. He invented himself as a starman, then barely took a breath before killing the star and creating another one.

Bowie was both avant garde and mainstream, in a way made possible by Pop Art and other countercultural shifts of the 1960s. In the early 1970s he was one of the biggest stars on the planet, with thousands of screaming teenagers following him wherever he went. His appearances in makeup and flamboyant costumes on Top of the Pops and other TV shows introduced previously unheard-of concepts of gender fluidity into millions of surprised households. But he always retained a keen curiosity in what was happening on the margins, and an unrivalled ability to bring those ideas to a broader audience.

His musical career began in the early 1960s and ended only last Friday with the release of his final album. But the work which resonates most and had the greatest impact was produced between 1970 and 1980, from The Man Who Sold the World to Scary Monsters (Super Creeps). If the 1970s represented, as some suggest, a “collective nervous breakdown” in the UK and US, then Bowie dramatised that breakdown in his own personal and artistic trajectory, switching directions with bewildering speed as he moved from glam to hard rock to funk to electronic experimentalism.

He produced some of the most memorable songs of his generation. Life on Mars, Starman, Changes, Young Americans, Ashes to Ashes. Many more were chart-toppers. Beyond the hits stood a massive body of work which inspired much of the best music of the past 40 years. Bowie’s impact, however, was more than musical. He was one of the most significant figures of late 20th century culture. His work will long endure.

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