On the Lasting Cultural Influence of David Bowie

By / Ethan Cummins

Even as I type this, I sit in quiet disbelief.  Since reading the reports in the early hours of the morning, I have struggled to know what to say about the passing of the legendary Starman, the otherworldly Ziggy Stardust, the innovator and the genius, David Bowie.  His lasting influence in the spheres of fashion, music, art, and popular culture is veritably incontrovertible. Both today and forever more, I thank my lucky stars that in the four billion years this Earth has been around, I was fortunate enough to exist at the same time as David Bowie.

Still largely at a loss for words in the wake of his passing, I recall the first time Bowie’s music made its way into my consciousness.  I was probably nine or ten years old when my dad dusted off his old copy of Young Americans and popped it onto the turntable.  He moved the needle down to the final cut of the album, “Fame”, as I observed in patient excitement.  The piercing horns and exotic rhythms, the  sharp guitar licks and Bowie’s silky smooth voice all billowed forth as I sat in silence, mesmerized, never knowing prior that this sort of music had ever been produced.  In the years of my childhood, I would continue to share in my dad’s obsession with the iconic musician.  However, it was not until my adult life that I would fully understand Bowie’s idiosyncratic innovation, his singular style, his multifaceted message.  What follows is a humble commentary on his life and the style for which he so brazenly paved the way.

David Bowie existed in many incarnations: Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, and the Thin White Duke, to name a few.  Nonetheless, no matter which hat he wore, Bowie continuously and deliberately tore down barriers of fashion, gender, and conventional music genres, rebuilding in their wake his own brand of androgynous space-age sophistication.  Collaborating with visual artists, e.g. Andy Warhol among others, Bowie constantly existed at the veritable zenith of cultural innovation.  In his fashion alone, Bowie inspired generations of youth to step beyond what the world expected of them. As Jon Pareles puts it in his Times tribute to the late innovator, Mr. Bowie’s costumes and imagery traversed styles, eras and continents, from German Expressionism to commedia dell’arte to Japanese kimonos to space suits.¹ Further, his style transcended not only culture but gender as well.  In utter rejection of institutionalized cisnormativity, Bowie refused to conform to the gender-based segregation of fashion so pervasive in his lifetime.  By adhering to innumerable identities or alter-egos on stage in his career, Bowie inspired numerous generations to question socioculturally preconceived notions of identity and individuality enforced by social institutions such as the heteropatriarchy of industrialized Western culture.  In the same spirit, his longtime relationship with and eventual marriage to international modeling icon Iman served as a beacon of hope in the struggle to placate the stigmatization of multiracial relationships from the late twentieth century to the present day.  

Bowie and Iman

Bowie and Iman

Beyond his sociocultural influence across the globe, to ignore his impact on the world of music would be nearly criminal.  Namely, the influence of Bowie’s sound is multigenerational to say the least.  At the beginning of his career, Bowie synthesized the polarizing style of the countercultural music of the 1960s, infusing his brand of creativity into the sound of artists such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and the Beatles.  In the years to come, never faithful to one sound for long, Bowie would pioneer an entire genre of music that would come to be known as glam rock:  the glittery, excessive image often associated with acts such as Marc Bolan and his subsequent project T. Rex, Alice Cooper, and Lou Reed in his solo career.  Furthermore, Bowie’s continual musical output in the following decades would pave the way for movements such as the New Wave, the proliferation of krautrock, and the eventual development of contemporary electronic music.  In addition, Bowie helped to bring African-American music and the sound of soul to the forefront of musical consciousness in the United States and Europe.  

The world may never have another David Bowie.  The caliber of his personality and his work has undoubtedly left indelible impressions on the worlds of music, fashion, and popular culture.  In the words of Ziggy Stardust himself, there’s a Starman waiting in the sky, he’d like to come and meet us, but he thinks he’d blow our minds.  David Bowie surely was our Starman, and to put it quite lightly, he surely did blow our minds.  Here’s to the legend.  Thank you, David Bowie.

¹Pareles, Jon. "David Bowie Dies at 69; a Chameleon in Music, Art and Fashion." New York Times, January 11, 2016.