It was only just Friday on his birthday that I fired up the Sonos and played what would be David Bowie's last album Blackstar, or ★ if you would. And now, two days after his 69th birthday, the man is dead and fans around the world who assumed that Bowie was immortal are reeling in the shock that he was just like one of us. Except of course, he wasn't. How could he be?
Calling him a chameleon is trite and cliché at this point. It's more apt to think of Bowie as an ever-changing brand that, despite the veneer, always stayed the same. The clothes were changed, the music went off in yearly tangents, but the person never changed. He was underneath it all, the same person: authentic, brilliant, and one of a kind. Think of Bowie's multi-changing personae throughout the 70's. Or even in the early 80's during a desperate last gasp for huge mainstream success that ultimately, if briefly, paid off. When he was looking like a Republican with a bleached mop top. Even Sellout Bowie was off kilter. It was always the same DNA.
As far as traditional brands go, none could have done what Bowie did and got away with it. People do not like their brands fucked with. They want their brands to stay the same, now and forever. Coca-Cola learned the hard way in the 80's doing a mega mea culpa when it introduced what no one asked for in its 100 years of being on the market: New Coke. Perhaps this is why Bowie went with The Choice Of A New Generation, choosing to cash in with a Pepsi commercial starring Tina Turner.
By the way, one of Bowie's only nine to five jobs was, you guessed it, working in advertising. According to The Drum, he worked "as a junior visualiser/paste up artist with Nevin D Hirst Advertising at its office in New Bond Street, London." He supposedly hated it. But it didn't stop him from appearing in ads like the Pepsi one, and this one for Louis Vuitton.
Bowie paved the way for other musicians and pop stars to approximate his alter-ego creations with varying results. Madonna was his female protégé and none pulled it off better. Lady Gaga is, to borrow a line from a Nine Inch Nails song, a copy of a copy of a copy. Hell, even Michael Jordan couldn't pull off his transition to baseball player. He was with the White Sox for about two weeks before having to play with a triple A team. The sporting world humored him until Jordan had to recognize he was just too off brand to make it work.
In all of the articles I have read today, many have described Bowie's second half of his career as being not as invigoratingly exciting, not as forward thinking. They say he spent the 90's onward chasing trends rather than setting them, at least in music. If Bowie had spent the late 60's and 70's in a rush of creativity, the likes of which most musicians never achieve in one year, he spent the 80's onward recouping what was lost from a decade that took its toll from drugs abuse and financial mismanagement. He didn't need to prove anything more to the world.
Of course that's bullshit. Reason was one of the few magazines to point out that Bowie became a trendsetter with his forays into technology and finance. Consider Bowie Bonds which "allowed the musician to sell the royalty rights to the 25 albums he recorded before 1990 for a lump-sum of $55 million, with the buyer of the bonds receiving all future revenue brought in by Bowie's back catalog plus 8% interest." In 1998, he created Bowienet, an internet service provider he created under his technology startup Ultrastar. Again, this is in 1998. Pre-social media. Pre wifi. Pre smart phone. Only one year before, half of America's internet was provided by AOL. And it was dialup. Tell me that's not being a trendsetter. And ever generous in giving others a hand, he also had BowieArt, which allowed artists to sell their wares online without high commissions.
In 1999, Bowie's twenty-first album Hours... was the first album by a major artist to be made available to download over the internet before the physical release. In addition, for the same album, Bowie launched a Cyber Song contest in which fans could download an instrumental track and write lyrics to it, the winner of which would go on to watch Bowie record the album and sing background vocals with him. This was UGC before people even knew the phrase.
Bowie also saw the sad writing on the wall when it came to the devaluation of music in the age of Napster and piracy. In a New York Times article from 2002, Bowie painted a grim picture of the future of music.
''I don't even know why I would want to be on a label in a few years, because I don't think it's going to work by labels and by distribution systems in the same way,'' he said. ''The absolute transformation of everything that we ever thought about music will take place within 10 years, and nothing is going to be able to stop it. I see absolutely no point in pretending that it's not going to happen. I'm fully confident that copyright, for instance, will no longer exist in 10 years, and authorship and intellectual property is in for such a bashing.''
''Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity,'' he added. ''So it's like, just take advantage of these last few years because none of this is ever going to happen again. You'd better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that's really the only unique situation that's going to be left. It's terribly exciting. But on the other hand it doesn't matter if you think it's exciting or not; it's what's going to happen.''
Bowie may have been off by a few years, but in an age where musicians are bringing class-action lawsuits against Spotify for lost profits, he certainly wasn't all that far off. As for Bowie Bonds, they may have gone up now unfortunately, but in 2004, with piracy in full swing, Moody’s cut the credit rating of Bowie Bonds to BBB+, right above junk bond status.
In the same article, which was released around the time of his album Heathen, Bowie intimated he was at the point where keeping up with the younger generation of musicians wasn't an option.
Mr. Bowie no longer expects to compete with performers in their 20's. ''I'm well past the age where I'm acceptable,'' he said. ''You get to a certain age and you are forbidden access. You're not going to get the kind of coverage that you would like in music magazines, you're not going to get played on radio and you're not going to get played on television. I have to survive on word of mouth.''
You could perhaps call that version Modest Bowie, but I suspect it was more the portrait of a shrewd man who was going to lay back and suss out the next trend. Bowie would go on to release one more album, Reality, before going on a decade long hiatus that made many wonder if he was done with music for good. In this time, social media sprung forth, and much like the early days of the internet, was the promise of a new utopia.
Bowie, in typical casual shrewdness of a PR giant announced his album The Next Day on his birthday, but only after recording it in secrecy, to the point where the people who worked on the album had to sign NDA's promising not to speak about it. In the age of selfies and constant living in the public eye, Bowie's reclusiveness proved as much of a genius stroke as it did dropping a video starring Tilda Swinton for "The Stars Are Out Tonight." He kept himself fiercely private while enjoying the fruits of social media on his own terms. He generated PR by staying mostly silent. And good for him for figuring it out better than the rest of us. (It's pathetic to think that Twitter as an overvalued company led by assholes who want to drown out anyone they disagree with, have become the arbiters of validation with a stupid blue checkmark they can withdraw on a whim. I wonder what Bowie must have thought about that.)
Barely a year after The Next Day, Bowie would start work on what would prove to be his last album, ★. Once again with an "oh by the way," he released a single for the title track in November, one more single in December, and then the full album on January 8th, his birthday. Just two days later, he'd pass away quietly at home after a year and a half long battle with cancer.
And now it's over. The man is gone. And he is being celebrated on social media like never before. My Twitter feed and Instagrams have been filled with endless tributes to the man, the myth, the legend. Most photos are from the 1970's era, because those Bowie brands will forever be ingrained in our culture. There is no denying the string of albums he made in that time were inimitable, and every shitty band that has tried to emulate him with less success or talent only proves it. He had some weak spots later in his musical career but some brilliant spots as well. The man understood the power of technology of the internet well before we did, as well as the perils of technology that would forever change our ethics to the point where, had an album like Ziggy Stardust came out today, Bowie would have made a pittance off of a Youtube video with a few million hits, or less than a pittance from a million streams. If no one valued the music any more, perhaps he thought there wasn't much point left in creating it.
But still he did. And Bowie, the brand with nothing left to prove at this point in life, created a stunning album that while lyrically obscure, just might have been his most emotionally direct. Scores of articles have been written on the meaning of the lyrics from "Lazarus," particularly "Look up here, I'm in heaven/I've got scars that can't be seen/I've got drama, can't be stolen/Everybody knows me now." The video seems even more direct. If one chooses to read into the lyrics, ★ may be the man's final farewell to the world. But the world will not forget him. He was a one of a kind man, and a one of a kind brand.
David Bowie performs at Tweeter Center outside Chicago in Tinley Park,IL, USA on August 8, 2002. Photo by Adam Bielawski @photobra