For almost five decades, David Bowie reinvented his image with each new album, movie role, and celebrity moment. Bowie’s career morphed into an ever-changing persona. How do you summarize one of most eclectic chameleons of all-time in only six songs? You would want to include his inspirational classics, his role in pushing sexual limits, Bowie’s Glam-metal phase, a detour into becoming a German Cabaret singer, Ziggy Stardust and other iconic movie roles, 70’s pop stardom, his rise to 80’s MTV superstar, and a critically acclaimed musical genius until his tragic death in early 2016. Impossible in six songs, probably. But here’s my best attempt:
“SPACE ODDITY” Starting with his breakthrough first hit, “Space Oddity”, Bowie pushed listeners beyond their typical pop record mentality. A fascination with space travel, aliens, and our small role in the universe, the song paints such a powerful visual image. Growing up with friends and creative genius peers like John Lennon and Elton John, you can hear the studio wizardry in the final mix of “Space Oddity”.
“CHANGES” David describes the song as his “parody of a nightclub song”. The hope and inspiration here is undeniable. The lead single from “Hunky Dory” in 1971 became a huge pop hit thanks to Bowie’s innate ability to cross musical genres all within one three minute record. You’ve got Soul, Doo-Wop, 60’s English Mod, and traditional rock and roll all woven together. This blending of styles became a trademark of Bowie’s career path.
“REBEL REBEL” Could you pick a better song title to epitomize an artist who continually challenged public perception? Remember his Neo-Nazi outfit? The lyrics say it all, “You got your mother in a whirl, she’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl.” The rousing Glam-Rock anthem and “Suffragette City” gave rise to the Punk Rock era and fortified David’s role in changing the landscape of music in the 1970’s.
“ASHES TO ASHES” Along with songs like “Fashion”, Bowie was a transitional artist who helped create the New Wave movement not only for the music. Bowie’s costumes, fashion style, and attitude attacked the status quo. One of the first artists to incorporate music videos to further enhance the message of his music, Bowie was breaking new ground here. You can also hear some traditional R&B flavor here, which he captured in songs like “Fame” and “Young Americans”.
“LET’S DANCE” The music of David Bowie could make you think, question society norms, and spark creative discussions on our role in the world. But he could also simply make you FEEL GOOD! Songs like “Under Pressure” with Queen, “China Girl”, and “Modern Love” are essential 80’s party hits. “Let’s Dance” became the biggest selling song of Bowie’s career. But even while he was entertaining us, there was a message about racism and political oppression tucked away in the music video that he later explored further in songs like “China Girl” and “I’m Afraid Of Americans”.
“HEROES” Recorded during David’s Berlin phase, the song took on global significance at multiple times in Bowie’s life. “Heroes” essentially became the theme song of the Live Aid concert for famine relief and played at the Olympic Games. The German Government told Bowie “you are now among the heroes” after the song was credited for becoming a catalyst for the eventual collapse of the Berlin Wall. After David’s death, it became his most streamed song on Spotify and rock historian, David Buckley wrote “Heroes” is “perhaps pop’s definitive statement of the potential triumph of the human spirit over adversity”.