David Bowie is a complex artist, and a complex human being. It’s not easy to pigeonhole him as an entertainer, and he has been an iconic musician ever since. His decades-spanning career and musical reinventions have shaped today’s pop music landscape deeply. His legacy can be traced even in artists whose music sounded nothing like his.
Here are the ways David Bowie is most remembered for, and his lasting influence on music, pop culture, and society.
He was a gender bender during a time when fluid sexuality wasn’t accepted yet.
At a time when homosexuality was still mostly illegal and not widely accepted, David Bowie embraced the idea of fluid sexuality and bisexual behavior publicly. As he came to prominence in the 1970’s, he’d wear dresses onstage, and flirt openly with guitarist Mick Ronson in a legendary performance of the song “Starman.” He declared himself bisexual in a Playboy interview in 1976, and inspired a generation of performers who played with the same boundaries. He helped pave the way for a culture that became more accepting of non-traditional sex roles. Thousands of young people struggling with their identities looked up to him as a beacon of change and hope. Being the ultimate outsider, he made many people feel accepted.
Adam Lambert, an American Idol alum, called Bowie an inspiration for writing Out in 2013, saying that bowie was “one of the first rock stars to really push the idea that sexuality was not black and white but an exploration.” He used his ostentatious, unconventional gender presentation to challenge what the mainstream public associates with virile, cisgender men.
Since Bowie, it has become more acceptable to bend the previously rigid rules of gender. It can be seen in Ke$ha’s glittering face paint, Ruby Rose on Orange is the New Black, Halsey shaving her own head, Sam Smith’s eyeliner, or Jaden Smith’s Louis Vuitton womenswear campaign. David Bowie’s ability to wear makeup while creating wild rock and roll led generations of outsiders to accept that being strange isn’t bad as long as you own it.
He influenced nearly every genre of music.
Bowie is most known for his rock ‘n’ roll music, but he made compelling music in a range of genres. While many late rock stars are saluted for their impact in the genre, Bowie occupies a higher historical tier. He’s not just an influential rocker – he influenced more musical genres than anyone else, making him the most influential rock star. He didn’t stick into one signature style, and his idea of having multiple styles, multiple ways of perception is one of the most defining radical aspects of the culture in the late 20th century.
His catalog includes everything from singer-songwriter gems, to soul to funk to post-Cold War anthems, to guitar-led rock. And he helped shape the sound of the 80s. His legacy impacted countless of artists and people, spawning movements and genres of all kinds.
Bowie and Marc Bolan were credited with inventing glam rock, while he was simultaneously inspiring the earliest incarnations of punk rock. His influence on punk may not appear clear musically, but stylistically. The hair dye and eyeliner-heavy British punk stars took more than a little from Bowie’s early ‘70s fashion.
He influenced folk with “Space Oddity” alone, forever sealing his importance to the folk-rock genre. His latter LP, featuring his hardest-rocking materials, also solidified his impact in the hard rock scene. Meanwhile, in the industrial rock world, it’s impossible to imagine Marilyn Manson or Trent Reznor having substantial careers without Bowie paving the way for them. And when grunge arose as the go-to genre for rebellious teenagers, Bowie once again was an influence, with Kurt Cobain and Green River covering and giving new life to his songs.
Bowie has a direct importance to electronic music, with albums like Low, Heroes and Lodger. The Berlin Trilogy gave electronic music a rock world crossover. He is also no less essential to pop music, as synth-pop and New Wave artists drew heavily on most of his work, from Ziggy to Heroes, until he went full-on pop with his Let’s Dance LP, which set the template for the next 30 years of alternative dance music. The relevance of Hunky Dory to indie music and ‘70s pop can’t be neglected either. His work served as the blueprint for every lo-fi, indie pop album of the three decades.
And among rock stars who made formidable impact on hip-hop and rock, Bowie is an important name. His post-Ziggy soul/R&B period had an impact on the R&B scene. His “Give up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker) made an enormous influence on rap indirectly. Names like Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Public Enemy, P. Diddy, Jay Z, and Tribe Called Quest are just some of the hip-hop and rap performers who have used Bowie’s work in their own.
His theatricality influenced a lot of artists.
Bowie was considered an “alien presence in pop music.” Not only did he shift personas from album to album and kept fans and critics guessing, he also brought a dramatic sense of flair, showmanship, and theatricality to rock music. His performances always blurred the line between a performance art piece and a musical concert. And as an artist, he gained quite a bit of attention himself.
His colorful style and various alter-egos and stage personas like Ziggy Stardust, Major Tom, Thin White Duke, Aladdin Sane – have influenced the work of top fashion designers, as well as pop stars. He often lamented that these made-up personas were mistaken as signs of personal transformation, while he saw it as theatre.
His influence extends far beyond his contemporaries, to artists varied as Kanye West, Lady Gaga and Madonna.
He made it acceptable for artists to play with gender in fashion.
David Bowie was more striking-looking than handsome, but his wire-thin body and angular facial structure helped him wear clothes well. His constantly changing persona allowed him to wear whatever he want, but his style was his own, no matter how many times it changed. He took the stage in a cotton candy-colored jumpsuit, or in a wide-legged jumpsuit designed by Kansai Yamamoto.
And he’s not a fashion icon just onstage – he was a lot stylish in person as well. Bowie’s personal style inspired menswear designers to add feminine touches and glam rock makeup to their runway looks. Clubbers started gender-bending in their attire. Rock stars no longer need to wear leather pants and swagger, as they can express themselves in ways that were formerly feminine.
He fused science fiction and pop culture.
Bowie made science fiction and pop culture collide, thanks to his first hit “Space Oddity,” which had a huge impact on sci-fi and geek culture. The way he incorporated storylines about extraterrestrial beings and the outer space into his music and albums paved the way for artists like Janelle Monae. Her pop songs and retro style about dystopian futures and androids have roots in her Bowie fandom.