Editorial: Bowie gave us a soundtrack to our lives

Music legend David Bowie. Photo / AP
Music legend David Bowie. Photo / AP

Like his style or not, David Bowie was one of the genuine originals of popular music. He can stand with Elvis Presley and the Beatles - and perhaps a handful of others - as artists who truly changed the sound and culture of modern music. Just as Elvis defined the 1950s and The Beatles the 1960s, Bowie stamped his image on the 70s. He arrived right at the beginning of that decade, as man was landing on the moon and looking back to notice for the first time the fragility of earth and its environment.

Other new concerns were emerging too. The so-called sexual revolution of the 60s had been a heterosexual thing, empowered by the pill. It was not until the 70s that women's "liberation" became feminism and sexuality became less defined by gender. Bowie's androgynous facial make-up, vocal phrasing, costumes and gestures were a shock, not just to older generations but to some of those who had come of age in the 60s. They liked rock music that was raw, hard and, they liked to believe, honest. With Bowie they were unsure.

He told one interviewer he was gay and another he was bisexual. Both were new words of the age. Whatever he really was did not matter. The artist was the creation, a work of art in its own right, constantly changing and disconnected to the man behind the make-up. The songs and albums, the image and the art, is all he seemed to want us to know of him. And the songs, of course, were magnificent. Delicate, inventive tunes that joined the popular anthems of the age.

Changes is one signature tune. He changed so often and so fast, on stage and in the course of his career, that it is hard to say anything defined him. He was a star who epitomised endless possibilities and legitimised all of them. He stood for acceptance of anything and anyone. And yet his personal life did not appear to be as chaotic as those of most who reach the top of the charts. Drugs and self-destructive behaviour - at least after the early days - did not feature in news of his activities.

In 1983, one of four visits he made to New Zealand, he attracted 74,480 to Western Springs, the largest crowd recorded at a concert in Australasia and quite possibly the largest that has gathered for anything in New Zealand. It certainly exceeds the number rugby tests can accommodate. It entered the Guinness Book of Records as the largest crowd as a proportion of the population anywhere, which suggests Bowie was more popular here than anywhere.

Of all the recollections that followed word of his death on Monday night, none was more telling than Lorde's account of meeting Bowie at a function in New York in 2013. Her songs, he told her, "felt like listening to tomorrow". He was a master of their craft, writing clever lyrics that remain in listeners' minds for life.

It is remarkable that he should produce yet another album in the final months of his life, released just days before he succumbed to cancer. Musicians of his stature become part of the fabric of our lives. Generations mark their personal milestones with memories of what they were doing, who they met, when a song was playing. For any number of us, many of those soundtracks were provided by Bowie. The songs, at least, live on.

- NZ Herald

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