David Bowie Essay - Critical Essays

Bowie, David


David Bowie 1947–

(Born David Jones) British songwriter, singer, musician, and actor.

Bowie is the prototypical early 1970s rock performer. Along with T. Rex, he brought "glitter rock" to the concert stage, entrancing his audience with his space-age, androgynous costumes and socially conscious lyrics. Ever since, he has been a controversial figure, idolized by some, denounced by others.

Bowie received his first commercial recognition with "Space Oddity" in 1969. The song pointed the way to his future recordings—the ethereal music combined clever, sensitive lyrics and a good deal of commentary concerning modern culture. After "Space Oddity," Bowie's rock became progressively harder, and in 1972 he produced what most critics believe to be his masterpiece, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. A loosely structured "concept" album, Ziggy chronicles the life and times of a rock star who comes from outer space, attempting to save earth from its inevitable destruction ("Five Years") and ending with his own death ("Rock 'n' Roll Suicide"). The album became enormously successful, and can be seen as the turning point in Bowie's career. It enabled him to fulfill his ideas concerning the combination of theater and rock, but his outrageousness onstage in the guise of Ziggy nearly overshadowed his lyrics. Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs gave Bowie new personas to work with, but they were less successful.

Young Americans was as controversial as his past albums, but was heavily based in rhythm-and-blues, and signaled a return to his early days. Still, the title song and "Fame" (written with John Lennon) are both personal statements and satiric social commentaries. Once again, Bowie changed his mask with Station to Station, becoming the "thin white duke" and combining ambiguous lyrics with beautiful melodies and highly charged pop. Bowie has concerned himself more recently with writing short, unusual pop tunes and long, sinister-sounding instrumentals. Both Low and Heroes follow this format, while Lodger attempts to combine the instrumentals with equally sinister, vaguely autobiographical lyrics.

Bowie's interest in theater has been the cornerstone of his career. Not content with one stage character, Bowie writes lyrics which can be seen as multi-act dramas written for whatever new character happens to strike his imagination. Some critics see his songs as a testament to his unique talent, for they combine short vignettes with an overriding social criticism—a touch of Jacques Brel combined with Bertolt Brecht. Still other critics see Bowie as a shrewd creator of strictly commercial ventures. This view of his work is stated by John Walker: "Ziggy Stardust begat an entire genre of pretty performers and provided some sense of vicarious liberation for a generation tricked into thinking the first coat of Cutex made them philosophers and the second made them homo superiors…. What happened when they finally caught on to the fact that the message wasn't bi-sexual, it was buy-sexual?"

John Mendelsohn

Bowie's music offers an experience that is as intriguing as it is chilling, but only to the listener sufficiently together to withstand its schizophrenia.

Bowie deals throughout [The Man Who Sold The World] in oblique and fragmented images that are almost impenetrable separately but which convey with effectiveness an ironic and bitter sense of the world when considered together. His unhappy relationship with the world is traced to his inability to perceive it sanely….

In an album that, save for the impotently sarcastic "Running Gun Blues," is uniformly excellent, at least four tracks demand special attention: "Savior Machine" demonstrates that Bowie far from exhausted his talent for quietly moralistic rock sci-fi in his earlier "Space Oddity." The almost insufferably depressive "After All" contains the strangest refrain perhaps ever conceived—a haunting, mantric "Oh, by jingo." "The Width of the Circle" is both a hallucination with religious overtones that recall both Dante and Adam and Eve and a sound of enormity. And "She Shook Me Cold" contains some of the most bizarre sexual imagery ever committed to vinyl: "She sucked my dormant will," or "She took my head, smashed it up / And left my young blood rising."

You ambitious young film-makers out there comtemplating a brilliantly evocative psychologically-oriented film about despair, consider Kevin Ayers and then eventually decide on David Bowie to do the score.

John Mendelsohn, "Records: 'The Man Who Sold the World'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1971; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 76, February 18, 1971, p. 50.

John Mendelsohn

For the most part, Dave is back, after an affair with heavy! high-energy killer techniques, back into his 1966-ish, Tony Newley pop-rock thing, and happily so. [Hunky Dory] is his most easily accessible, and thus most readily enjoyable work since his Man Of Words/Man of Music album of 1969….

[The Man Who Sold the World] was erratic in the extreme, tedious music and hopelessly obscure (and sometimes downright embarrassing) words alternating frequently within the space of a verse with exciting melodic phrases and poignant, incisive lyrics.

Hunky Dory not only represents Bowie's most engaging album musically, but also finds him once more writing literally enough to let the listener examine his ideas comfortably without having to withstand a barrage of seemingly unimpregnable verbiage before getting at an idea…. (p. 63)

While compiling material for this album Dave's thoughts apparently turned frequently to the imminence of the birth of his first son, Zowie, which preoccupation is reflected in … "Oh! You Pretty Things" and "Kooks." The former, which was a hit in England for Herman Hermit, intimates that homo superior—the superman race—is about to emerge, implicitly in the form of the wee Bowie. (pp. 63-4)

"The Bewlay Brothers" sounds like something that got left off The Man Who Sold because it wasn't loud enough. Musically it's quiet and barren and sinister, lyrically virtually impenetrable—a stream-of-consciousness stream of strange and (seemingly) unrelated imagery and it closes with several repetitions of a chilling chorus….

And there you have it. With his affection for using intriguing and unusual themes in musical settings that most rock "artists" would dismiss with a quick fart as old-fashioned and uncool, he's definitely an original, is David Bowie, and as such will one day make an album that will induce us homo superior elitist rock critics to race about like a chicken with its head lopped off when he learns that he's a couple of pretentious tendencies he'd do handsomely to curtail through the composition of an album's-worth of material. Until that time, Hunky Dory will suffice hunkydorily. (p. 64)

John Mendelsohn, "Records: 'Hunky Dory'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1972; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 99, January 6, 1972, pp. 63-4.

Ed Kelleher

Bowie is mad alright. He wears his brain right out on his lapel like a dazzling boutonniere. It flashes and beckons you to come right along on a brilliantly entertaining and self-serving expedition….

Once David was content with being a likeable schizophrenic with a lot of promise. Recently, though, he has smashed his personality and scattered it in so many directions you need a magnet to gather them back again. Fortunately, he provides that magnet, which is his musical genius and authority. If now he is "the twisted name on Garbo's eyes" and in ten seconds "living proof of Churchill's lies," those conditions obtain because Bowie has brought them around through his songs….

No one can accuse David of holding back. More than half of side two [of Hunky Dory] is taken up with admonitions, scoldings and bits of advice directed at Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan. Andy seems to irk Bowie in some vague unfathomable way but he also fascinates him. In a song called "Andy Warhol," that artist is depicted as nothing less than a tousle-haired boring child, but on another track, "Fill Your Heart-Andy Warhol," Bowie simply urges him to forget his mind and become a lover. "Song For Bob Dylan" has been dated a bit by the release of "George Jackson" but the sincerity of Bowie's request that Dylan "gaze a while down the old street" is undiminished.

At least three more cuts are deserving of the appellation masterpiece. They are "Changes," "Life On Mars" and "Queen Bitch." Each is a perfect matchup of melody to the terrifyingly lovely lyrics which are Bowie's specialty. "Time may change me, but I can't trace time" is the thought of "Changes."… "Life On Mars" is a whirligig in the horror circus of society circa 1972 or whatever year you happen to be in. "Queen Bitch" is a lament for opportunities lost, told from the vantage point on an eleventh floor hotel room while hustlers shuffle for trade on the windy streets below.

By letting the string out of his mind, David Bowie has created an important, striking and lasting work of art. Hunky Dory is as beautiful as a scar and a hundred times more deep.

Ed Kelleher, "Records: 'Hunky Dory'," in Crawdaddy (copyright © 1972 by Crawdaddy Publishing Co., Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), February 20, 1972, p. 15.

Richard Cromelin

[The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is] David Bowie's most thematically ambitious, musically coherent album to date, the record in which he unites the major strengths of his previous work and comfortably reconciles himself to some apparently inevitable problems….

Side two is the soul of the album, a kind of psychological equivalent of [The Kinks's] Lola vs. Powerman that delves deep into a matter close to David's heart: What's it all about to be a rock & roll star? It begins with the slow, fluid "Lady Stardust," a song in which currents of frustration and triumph merge in an overriding desolation…. The pervading bittersweet melancholy that wells out of the contradictions … conjures the picture of a painted harlequin under the spot-light of a deserted theater in the darkest hour of the night….

[The] price of playing the part must be paid, and we're precipitously tumbled into the quietly terrifying despair of "Rock & Roll Suicide." The broken singer drones: "Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth / Then you pull on your finger, then another finger, then your cigarette." But there is a way out of the bleakness, and it's realized with Bowie's Lennon-like scream: "You're not alone, gimme your hands / You're wonderful, gimme your hands." It rolls on to a tumultuous, impassioned climax, and though the mood isn't exactly sunny, a desperate, possessed optimism...

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Ellen Willis

In England, David Bowie may become—may already be—a real star, but in the American context he looks more like an aesthete using stardom as a metaphor. (p. 171)

Part of the problem is Bowie's material. "Hunky Dory," the first of his albums to get much critical attention, has become one of my favorite records, but his more recent stuff bores me. When "Hunky Dory" came out, I took one look at the album cover—a soft, vague picture of the artist looking soft and vague—and anticipated a soft, vague sensibility. Instead, Bowie turned out to be an intelligent, disciplined, wry Lou Reed freak. To say that his current opus, "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars"…, fulfills...

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Alan Lewis

The evidence of ["Space Oddity" and "The Man Who Sold The World"] is that Bowie shouldn't have needed all that hype and probably doesn't need most of the camp theatrical razzamatazz that now surrounds him.

The songs here prove that he should have made it on the music alone, and would have done so a long time ago if we'd only had our ears open. Indeed, I've a sneaking suspicion that we may have "discovered" him too late. For in many ways these albums are more satisfying than the flashy, brittle and superficially more clever stuff he's doing now.

For all its occasional naivety, "Space Oddity" remains an album of daring imagination and breathtaking beauty. It's the work of a man still...

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Ben Gerson

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars depicted an impending doomsday, an extraterrestrial visitation and its consequences for rock and society. Although never so billed, Ziggy was a rock opera, with plot, characters and musical and dramatic momentum. Aladdin Sane, in far less systematic fashion, works over the same themes—issuances from the Bowie schema which date back to The Man Who Sold the World. Bowie is cognizant that religion's geography—the heavens—has been usurped, either by science or by actual beings.

If by conventional lights Bowie is a lad insane, then as an Aladdin, a conjurer of supernatural forces, he is quite sane. The titles...

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Henry Edwards

Of all the known glitter-rockers, David Bowie has the most significant writing talent. David's orange hair, pale makeup, outer-space mode of dressing, and self-confessed bisexuality have tended to obscure his genuine musical talents. He is unquestionably a master craftsman. He can write a genuine melody and a shrewd lyric, and he is thoroughly schooled in the art of arranging and record-producing.

These talents have been dissipated by Bowie on a series of immature fantasies dealing with a comic-book tomorrow land. "Aladdin Sane" however is a different story. This new release is a cruel report about the America the superstar saw during his first tour of the country. It is a collection of pessimistic,...

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Michael Watts

Bowie's almost bewildering urge to keep metamorphosising has resulted, in fact, in each attempt at recording being quite astonishingly different as well as seeming to propel him further and further away from the accepted concept of what a rock and roller should be. Apparently unhappy with the image of a rock and roller, he seems to have always sought the more sophisticated embrace of the theatre proper as a means of consummating instincts that have more to do with acting than rock and rolling.

Thus he has a greater affinity with [Anthony] Newley, indeed, whom he imitates so well (and who also saw pop as a vehicle for wider talents), rather than [John] Lennon or [Pete] Townshend, who are rooted in...

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Linda Solomon

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of man? No, not the Shadow, but only David Bowie, whose dire prognosis of life on this planet is enough to send you cringing away in fear. Diamond Dogs is a concept album with a dismal futuristic view of life after some unspecified holocaust, when peoplekind has become deformed and half-animal, and the world as we know it no longer exists.

"I'm sorry, I'm not protected for this fantasy," sings Bowie in the title cut, a straightforward British rocker which owes more to Hunky Dory than to his more recent stuff (although the rest of DD tends toward The Man Who Sold The World)…. Bowie makes you grit your teeth and strain to adapt...

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Ken Emerson

Clearly, David Bowie is not the "homo superior" he once claimed and many believed him to be. That claim and belief were based on Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust, two records of startling genius which will be among the great albums of the Seventies. But since then Bowie has disappointed even his most rabid devotees. Aladdin Sane was frustratingly uneven, Pinups was trivial, and now comes Diamond Dogs, perhaps Bowie's worst album in six years….

From Aladdin Sane on, Bowie has tended to pander to what he thinks the public wants and to imitate those who have been more successful than he—Alice Cooper and Mick Jagger, for instance. He has deliberately cheapened...

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David F. Fandray

David Bowie, in his never-ending quest for the spectacular and grandiose, has produced some truly awe-inspiring music. He has also produced some incredibly disgusting tracks. Never, until Diamond Dogs, however, has he succeeded in producing an LP that wasn't a mixture of both. From the first cut to the last, this LP stands out as a total travesty. Bowie has tried to portray in music the death of over-mechanized civilization. In this, he has succeeded, since Diamond Dogs is dull and lifeless. The production is dull, the musicianship is uninspired, and the lyrics are overblown. The only good thing about the album is Bowie's ever-impressive voice, but that is not enough to salvage this disaster.


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Michael Gross

David Bowie's Young Americans lp is the strongest set of studio material he has released since Ziggy Stardust. Like a split leaf philodendron whose leaves grow back whole, the segmented parts of Bowie's musical personality have coalesced into a seemingly transitional, but nonetheless identifiable persona. The acute observer of Man Who Sold The World, the poet of Hunky Dory and the fragmented space child of his recent work have combined, and though the musical atmosphere may prove initially frustrating to Bowie's peculiar mixture of fans and admirers, the album ultimately holds up as being phenomenologically precise.

Hegel, of course, has nothing to do with Bowie, but if...

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Trixie A. Balm

[With Young Americans] Bowie's thrown in the towel on rock and concept music, preferring to boogie down to prosperity instead. Okay, Dave … shortchange us perfervid dupes who put stock in ya….

I personally feel gypped. By stifling his contemptuous tone, skirting scorn for things pathetic and mundane that haunted his prior work, Bowie is neglecting statement. By devoting himself to disco-soul, playing a purely commercial idiom in lieu of making new strides, Bowie is shunning art….

I'm unconvinced Young Americans is anything but commercial, unless it's another Bowie transition. The words trite, unenthralling, and masturbatory come to mind. Young...

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Joel Vance

Whatever Bowie does on stage, and no matter how skillfully, it cannot and does not carry over to recordings. He comes off flat and pedestrian with his overfed, underpowered vocals and lyrics filled with incomprehensible blah. Some of his early albums were loony and funny, but he is now apparently taking himself seriously and it just doesn't work. Almost all of ["Young Americans"] is pale and unprofitable, with the exception of his rendering of John Lennon's wonderful Across the Universe, outstanding because of the way he butchers the tune.

Joel Vance, "Popular Discs and Tapes: 'Young Americans'," in Stereo Review (copyright © 1975 by Ziff-Davis Publishing...

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Allan Jones

[Bowie] has preferred throughout his recording career to immerse himself in carefully contrived roles and personae through which he has sought to elaborate his various concepts and futuristic visions. He has established a reluctance to adopt any kind of intimate, confessional stance and a determination to assimilate a multiplicity of styles and techniques which has led his detractors to conclude that he has no real or substantial identity of his own.

That argument has, however, become less persuasive and has lost much of its credibility since Bowie made public his confusion and desperation with the audaciously conceived "David Live", an album of documentary intensity. Bowie, it seemed, had become...

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Lester Bangs

David Bowie has never been my hero. I always thought all that Ziggy Stardust homo-from-Aldebaran business was a crock of shit…. I thought he wrote the absolute worst lyrics I had ever heard from a major pop figure with the exception of Bernie Taupin; lines like "Time takes a cigarette and puts it in your mouth" and "screwed up eyes and screwed down hairdo / like some cat from Japan," delivered with a face so straight it seemed like it would crack at a spontaneous word or gesture, seemed to me merely gauche. As for his music, he was as accomplished an eclectician (a.k.a. thief) as Elton John, which means that though occasionally deposited onstage after seemingly being dipped in vats of green slime and pursued by...

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Paul Nelson

If there is an inherent pretentiousness which [Lou] Reed usually manages to avoid in the role of romantic outcast, chances are that David Bowie … will both seek it out and exploit it. More a masterful manipulator of media than a creditable creative figure, Bowie, whom critic Frank Rose has aptly dubbed "the first space-age bisexual Deco superstar," has fabricated his fame primarily by flitting from one threadbare, mock-serious philosophical stance to another without truly embracing any of them. Sensitive artiste, space baby, glitter queen, neo-Nazi supergod, disco robot, Cabaret cadaver—pick any two and then try to figure out whether any real relationship beyond a chic and timely theatricality exists...

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Chris Welch

David Bowie was a remarkable chanteur, even in his earliest days—the period critics now tend to ignore or deride. For a small coterie of Bowie fans in the early Sixties, his records were fresh, amusing and often moving, and in sharp contrast to the more brutal aspects of the evolving heavy-metal movement. His first album for Decca, "Rubber Band," was a prized possession to be mulled over with a mixture of amusement and fascination.

David was already writing and performing songs that cut across the current conventions. Today some of them may sound twee, with rather heavy-handed orchestral backings, and child-like lyrics.

Setting aside the Bowie legend that now looms so large, one...

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John Milward

Side one [of Low], where Bowie works within more conventional rock trappings, is superior to side two's experiments simply because a band forces discipline into Bowie's writing and performance. Sandwiched between a pair of spacey instrumentals are five brief but well-defined pop songs combining quirky lyrics and a band driven by sharply cracking drums and riffing guitars. At their best, the songs are funny—only a stoneface could resist smiling when hearing Bowie's hurdy-gurdy voice sing "You're such a wonderful person, but you got problems" in "Breaking Glass"—and the band's squeaky performances match the lyrical playfulness.

When Bowie stretches out on side two, however, his mask begins...

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Allan Jones

"Heroes," while it contains much that is reminiscent of "Low," offers further, and occasionally considerable, evidence of [Bowie's] artistic maturity….

[On the instrumental] tracks on side two, Bowie] has not pursued the vocal techniques and use of phoneticism explored on the likes of "Warszawa" and there is, furthermore, a return on the five songs that appear on side one of "Heroes" to a more conventional use of rock lyrics than was apparent on the fragmented songs on the first side of "Low."…

Lyrically, these songs seem to speculate on an inevitably bleak and uninviting future, with Bowie looking out to the world more emphatically than on any album since "Diamond Dogs" (of...

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Ira A. Robbins

David Bowie is the most inconsistently appealing genius in rock. With his chameleon ability to change from disco to space-rock to romantic ballads to astringent mechanomusic, Bowie has demonstrated that he can master and present music any way he cares to. Add that to his interest in salvaging/controlling careers of aimless visionaries like Iggy the Stooge and Mott the Hoople, his film interests and his penchant for working/writing/recording with various like-minded talents and you come up with a major musical force of the '70s. Regardless of the fact that very little of his recent musical output has been as enjoyable as it has been admirable, Bowie is a fascinating figure of limitless imagination.


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Alec Ross

Lodger is … the culmination of Bowie's work since Station to Station. The lyrics are far simpler and freer of symbolism than even those on Low, while vocally, Bowie maintains the desperate optimism he developed in "Heroes." In fact, the entire record shows signs of desperately trying to be upbeat, and the tone is set by the very first number, "Fantastic Voyage," where Bowie follows the line "We're learning to live with somebody's depression" with "We'll get by, I suppose." Is this an indication of Bowie's present frame of mind? The ambiance of Lodger is more purely Bowie than any of his albums in years…. (p. 35)

Lodger shows a nervous Bowie...

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Noel Coppage

Well, Bowie does make you suspect he has intelligence—the album just before [Lodger], for instance, had a certain, um, élan about it—and so you listen. And usually picture him laughing all the way to the bank while you're actually trying to sort out the gobbledegook. That's what I'm doing this time, but at least I didn't have to pay for the damned thing. Bowie has always killed off his background—about the only real thing we've ever known about him is that he's afraid of flying (and in Move On here he mentions boats and trains but not planes). Now he's killed off the Ziggy Stardust and Ch-Ch-Changes phase, but in this one he seems to be a character in search of an author. He's...

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Alec Ross

The enigma that is David Bowie first came to the attention of most of the American public in 1972, with the release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Admittedly, the album was a remarkable achievement, a careful package that tread somewhere between concept album and rock opera, but would it have been as noticed had Bowie not held his widely publicized interview in which he stated he was gay, just prior to Ziggy Stardust's release? Despite Bowie's frequently reiterated statement that his music only reflects his environment, in this instance he served to make the times….

In retrospect, Bowie's music had little to do with his fame; spectacle and...

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