Milestones: David Bowie

To some extent, all of the most memorable musical artists are shape-shifters. There’s the transformation of Snoop Dogg to Snoop Lion which enabled him to go from gangster rapper to reggae prophet; the evolutions of child-stars Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus from innocent pop-princesses to rebellious, sexual women; Prince’s metamorphosis into a symbol, “the artist formerly known as Prince”. 

Arguably, there is no artist who is so defined by his many “ch-ch-changes” as David Robert Jones – or David Bowie, as he is known to us mortals. Bowie has been a major figure in the world of music for over four decades. The exhibition “David Bowie Is” at the V&A was the first retrospective of the extraordinary career of Bowie. It charted his rise to fame, his various transformations and reinventions, and his continuing and monumental influence on music, art, film, and the fashion industry. 

Interestingly, the first thing with which visitors to the exhibition were met was an installation piece by Roelof Louw – a conceptual artist who explores the relationship between physical space and viewer. Pyramid (Soul City) is a pyramid of 6,000 oranges to which visitors are invited to help themselves. The shape of the artwork gradually depletes as more oranges are taken. 

What does this have to do with David Bowie? Colourful, experimental, and ever shape – shifting from all angles, Pyramid is a metaphor for Bowie and his career. 

Perhaps Bowie’s most memorable transformation was Ziggy Stardust – theatrical, deliberately flamboyant, neither male nor female. For Bowie, Ziggy was “a shape for the moment” – an opportunity to explore a world outside of gender constraint. His next persona was Aladdin Sane, with the lightning-bolt which would become our iconic image of Bowie. 

Although technically a new persona, Bowie now regards this as a way of “getting out” of Ziggy: a transitional, ephemeral self. He changed again for Diamond Dogs, with Bowie’s head appeared attached to a dog’s body: a sinister, sphynx-like metamorphosis from human to animal. 

In the ‘80s, he disappeared briefly into relative anonymity, recording under the guise of other band-names and questioning the validity of creating a new persona for each new album. On the jacket of 1999’s Hours, he holds his own corpse, mourning the passing of yet another self. 

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Where many celebrity transformations nowadays are messy, fleeting, or deliberate publicity stunts, Bowie changed in carefully considered stages, all of them theatrical, beautiful and psychologically complex. His shape changing made him a cultural icon of the Twentieth Century, proving that change is the way to endure. 

Like Prince, Bowie is in some ways more of a symbol than a man. He is a living legend marked by his various incarnations, who will doubtless continue to influence culture in all its forms for many generations to come.