There are certain artists about whom we speak of their influence upon other artists, and whatever larger culture we subscribe to, to such an extent that we risk turning inspiration into currency. The discussion becomes just another metric—like sales or Spotify plays—by which we can judge art. For all our talk of taste and singular discernment, nothing is allowed to be beautiful without evidence.
On the other hand, the existential bean counters who judge art by hard sales far outnumber us delicate souls who prefer a slightly less tangible standard by which to justify our record collections. Unless we’re looking to see Patrick Bateman as misunderstood truth-teller, or to rate the Eagles’ Greatest Hits as the peak of human achievement, we’re going to have to go to bat for the ineffable.
There is another, even more utilitarian, reason for valuing influence. One of the very few aspects of David Bowie no longer being alive that isn’t impossibly sad is the comfort in both his lasting influence and the knowing that the man lived long enough to see the influence he had. Life is sad, for all of us left behind, but we take comfort in the fact that David Bowie’s influence spans not just from his one lifetime, but from the multitude of his aspects he expressed throughout that life; the multitude of iterations of David Bowie that lived and died (and, when it made sense to tour on his greatest hits, lived again) within a single gaunt frame. There’s the old joke about how the thousand hepcats who bought the first Velvet Underground album each formed a band. If that joke is true, then at least a thousand bands had a first rehearsal every single time David Bowie debuted a new hairdo.
It’s difficult to know where to begin when discussing the seismic effect David Robert Jones’ art and personas (which were also his art) had on the world. Do we begin with the artists he first drew his own inspiration from, before making an outsize rendition of that inspiration into its own kind of lodestar? Do we begin with how Bowie inspired Lou Reed to finally lean into his doo-wop instincts and give being actually popular a try? Or how Bowie, after mixing Raw Power (with results so hotly debated that the discourse itself proved influential), got the Stooges’ frontman off of hard guitars and into a Berlin studio, where Iggy Pop would, through no fault of his own, invent new-wave music? Do we start with Bowie’s glam contemporaries: how as soon as Roxy Music invented glam rock, Bowie made a concept album about glitter’s illogical endpoint, thus forcing every band in a boa to transcend themselves or go to their glitter graves as Spiders From Mars footnotes?
And if glam is a largely dead language and classic rock has hagiographied itself into its own kind of oblivion, do we then start with punk and post-punk? After all, if you talk to any band that started from 77 on, nearly every (honest) member will pinpoint the July 6,1972, episode of Top of the Pops, specifically when David Bowie threw his arm around Mick Ronson during “Starman,” as the exact second that their lives were transformed. Sisters of Mercy, Joy Division, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Bauhaus, Gary Numan’s Tubeway Army, even the Sex Pistols: It’s not like any of these bands (including the thin dukes that came after, like Pulp or the Smiths) have been subtle in their indebtedness. Some acts, such as Suede, managed to build entire (and entirely grand) careers on Diamond Dogs alone. And in the case of Bauhaus, Bowie’s influence was so profound and occasionally debilitating that Peter Murphy’s entire discography can be considered a document of one man’s Oedipal relationship to the daddy/mommy figure whose shadow is simultaneously invited, nurturing, resented, and inescapable.
You see the problem. We’re already a third of a way into this essay, two decades into Bowie’s influence, and we’re only five albums into the man’s 26-album discography. There’s a 600-page history of the early-’8 Os New Romantic movement, but the author could have saved himself some carpal-tunnel syndrome if he’d just typed out “1975’s Young Americans, 1980’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), cocaine, advancements in hair-teasing technology, and some other stuff,” and sent it off to the printers. Kajagoogoo might have been miffed at the omission, but Duran Duran probably woulda still bought a dozen copies.
Focusing solely on the influence Bowie had on others is half-truth that he’d never approve of. As evidenced by being one of the first, and only, whites to call out the erasure of Black artists on early MTV, Bowie wasn’t interested in evasions that served the status quo (and while it’s tempting to credit Bowie with influencing MTV to be less racist, credit for that probably goes to Michael Jackson and the brute, amoral in intent if very occasionally moral in result, force of the market). Bowie would be the first to admit that his career was, without downplaying his innovations, as much about a conversation with what was going around him. Before he aged into deification (or before music writing aged into a perpetual pandering to teenage instincts that allows for zero criticism of popular artists who haven’t either killed someone, been caught being racist on tape, or committed sexual assault after, say, 1988), one criticism (or praise, faintly levied) of Bowie was his “chameleon” nature, with the implication being he didn’t mean it, at least not in the way that punk or *cough* Mick Jagger did. Of course, one nice thing about poptimism is that questions of authenticity have been largely (and correctly) thrown aside, and we can see Bowie’s changeability for what it was: a voracious curiosity and refusal to dismiss what other art “the kids” were into, be it Eno’s ambient tones, Nile Rodgers’ dance-floor sheen (which itself began, in part, with Bowie’s influence and Chic’s desire to be “a Black Roxy Music”), or the hectic futurism of drum ’n’ bass. A desire to remain relevant and/or famous as well, sure, but we don’t diminish the artistic worth of early cave painters just because they borrowed fire from slightly more hep hairless apes, or Ancient Aliens...or Prometheus...the point stands).
Today, Bowie’s influence is so pervasive, either directly or through intermediaries, that pinpointing it is like pinpointing water’s influence on fish. From Lady Gaga’s adoption of Bowie’s most facile (but still essential) quality of studious changeability to St. Vincent’s aristocratic artpop; from Kanye West (who was briefly rumored to be recording an album of Bowie covers and whose connection is at least apparent enough to have inspired an internet conspiracy theory regarding West being the fulfillment of a secret prophecy threaded throughout Ziggy Stardust) to the dour world-building of Radiohead; from Perfume Genius to all the artists who appeared on Modem Love, the jazzand funk-themed Bowie tribute album that the BBC curated last year; from the interdimensional composer Circuit des Yeux telling CREEM, “David Bowie showed me how to live out the true spectrum of human emotions in all of its drama. His body of work is a testament to our unique ability as humans to build a cultural world and carry it around until our final steps.... When 1 listen to Bowie’s music it makes me want to start running and never stop,” to the inter-diaspora avant-funksters in Ibibio Sound Machine covering “Heroes” and saying, “David Bowie was and is a massive inspiration and he’s one of those artists who seems further ahead of his time with each passing year”; from rappers of varying degrees of fame sampling Bowie to all the not-quite-nearly-famous garage/ psychedelic rockers, whose numbers match that of the aforementioned fish in the sea and who simply appropriate Bowie’s tenor—taken individually or as a whole, David Bowie’s effect on the contemporary pop/rock landscape is...the landscape. Not to say that it’s David Bowie’s world exclusively. That would be weird, ahistorical, arguably sacrilegious, and not a little racist. But the ghost of the man has his name on the lease.
So, yeah, the ghost. David Bowie; still dead at 75. After all the premature obituaries for his career that critics snidely wrote over the years, after all the ensuing resurrections, with Bowie’s adaptability devoid of cynicism being his most inimitable quirk, it’s spiritually (if not intellectually) hard to accept that something so prosaic as corporeal death is the one that took. It’s not as though Bowie’s influence is due to a game of numbers, like he had so many popular eras that it’s no surprise that a couple stuck. Rather, each era seeded its own family tree. Whether connecting to the horny grandeur of the glam years, the proto-neo-soul of “Young Americans,” the sophisticated avant-boogie of the Thin White Duke years, the early embracement of high technology and primal ambience evinced on Low, the pastel romanticism of the ’80s, the wild-in-the-wilderness “what’s the worst that’ll happen?” spirit of Bowie in the ’90s (you’d be unsurprised at the number of people who swear by Black Tie White Noise), or even (or especially) the melancholy acceptance of death/ celebration of life that was his final masterpiece, Blackstar (of which Circuit des Yeux says, “His choice to share suffering in the form of an album at the end of his life was one of the most earnest, brave, and heartfelt artistic moments made by any modern musician”), it’s not hard to find at least a handful of artists still keeping the lines of communication between this world and the next, on whatever plane of existence Bowie is currently vibing, open. Anyone with a father knows that it doesn’t take a two-way line to make a conversation. And anyway, no one can claim David Bowie didn’t do a fine job raising us.
This article originally appeared in a CREEM Special Edition on David Bowie for the release of Moonage Daydream. Explore the entire issue here.