Editor’s Note: John Covach is director of the University of Rochester’s Institute for Popular Music and professor of music at both Rochester and the Eastman School of Music. He is the author of “What’s That Sound? An Introduction to Rock and Its History” and maintains an active career as a performing and recording musician. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
David Bowie was one of the first rockers to introduce theatricality to performance
John Covach: The key to Bowie's career success was his constant reinvention
Music historians will remember David Bowie as among the first rockers to introduce theatricality to rock performance. He was not alone in doing this in the early 1970s; Alice Cooper and Peter Gabriel were also donning makeup and costumes as a part of the live act, and Jim Morrison and even Screaming Lord Sutch had adopted stage personas in the 1960s, not to mention Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Bowie devised the distinctive character of Ziggy Stardust from a combination of “A Clockwork Orange” and Kabuki theater. Bowie’s 1972 album, “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust,” presented the character, which the singer then portrayed live and often maintained the persona even in interviews.
At a time when concept albums were common enough, it wasn’t so much that the idea drove the album, it was how far Bowie was willing to take it.
The important difference in Bowie’s approach was that most new albums often brought with them a fresh persona – and also a change of musical style as well. The key to Bowie’s ultimately long-lived career success were these changes.
By 1976, for instance, Ziggy was long gone and Bowie was the Thin White Duke, a character that could not be more different from the androgynous Stardust.
Fans came to expect change from Bowie. While Alice Cooper’s persona remained relatively stable and Kiss kept the same makeup, Bowie seemed to reinvent himself at every opportunity.
David Bowie's best quotes
Bowie’s shifts in persona and musical style are a big part of what kept his music vital and relevant into the decades that followed his initial success. A big problem for many artists is that their fans do not want them to change. If an artist goes in a new direction, fans will often see it as a kind of betrayal of the previous music.
This forces many acts to decide between continued success and artistic freedom – and many choose not to risk much change. But with Bowie, change became a crucial feature of his success. He did not get stuck in a stylistic cul-de-sac that forced him to repeat himself as a musician and performer. He had license to innovate.
Sounds of 'The Seventies'
Nobody learned more from Bowie than Madonna. Her career in the 1980s, starting with 1984’s “Like a Virgin,” retraced Bowie’s career steps, as each new album and tour revealed a new image. During these same years, Michael Jackson remained Michael Jackson, but Madonna’s persona was continually shifting. This expectation of change is also a key factor in her career longevity.
The artistic freedom that Bowie cultivated not only helped his music to remain interesting and popular, it also established him as among rock’s most uncompromising artists. His embrace of a wide range of styles – some of them leaning toward the artistic avant-garde – have made him a model for generations of aspiring musicians.
The name David Bowie has come to be synonymous with the idea of artistic sophistication in rock – the notion that rock musicians might explore artistic approaches and perspectives that would otherwise have been considered too “conceptual” for popular entertainment.
Bowie was able to achieve all this because he would not let himself be penned in at the start of his success. He made change his brand, and it served him well.