David Bowie Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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?"