David Bowie died Sunday night at 69, after an 18-month battle with cancer. Bowie was a tireless innovator who used music as a medium to popularize conceptual art and performance. He was hugely influential because he was always looking forward, whether in his sound (glam rock, Brian Eno, minimalism, sweaty club funk) or in the places and ideas he explored (queer culture, Berlin underground, celebrity, madness…)
Bowie had a knack for spotting emerging trends. He spent his career building bridges between the artistic avant-garde and the wider pop music audience, between the present and the future. His music was all about changes and metamorphosis. It incorporated many science-fiction themes, trying to make sense of the disorientation brought on by accelerating social transformations. For a while, in the 70s and early 80s, it was as if David Bowie had his fingers and his ears on the pulse of the world. In the late 90s, he launched his own internet service provider.
Here are 7 of the songs that proved David Bowie was truly from the future.
- Space Oddity : Space Oddity, the tale of a hippie astronaut ('Major Tom') calling Earth from space, was recorded in June of 1969. Its title was a direct reference to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. In a bit of crass commercialism, it was supposed to be released around Apollo 11's landing on the Moon. However, the BBC waited until the American astronauts had safely returned home before playing the song on the air. To this day, Space Oddity is famous for its verses "planet earth is blue/and there's nothing I can do." It chronicles in simple words the change of an era. It is the soundtrack for humanity's first steps into space.
- Five Years : This song opens Bowie's 1971 breakout album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. It is an exploration and a deconstruction of the figure of the rock star. Ziggy Stardust is a fictional pop singer who came from space (Mars, maybe). Bowie gave performances in character, as the glammed up Ziggy. "Five Years" is a soaring, lyrical rock'n'roll number. The song recounts the reaction of people upon learning that Earth is going to die within 5 years. It is chilling and tragic, and like Space Oddity it tells of our lonely, pale blue dot, but from the standpoint of those who did not make it to space like Major Tom.
- Rebel, Rebel: Originally written for Ziggy Stardust but cut for 1974's Diamond Dogs, Rebel, Rebel is a queer anthem . The lyrics are direct and explicit: "You've got your mother in a whirl/she can't tell if you're a boy or a girl." Again, this was 1974. It was not the type of thing you usually heard on the radio. Bowie was truly a pioneer of LGBT visibility: he came out as gay in a radio interview in 1972. It may not have been entirely truthful, or maybe it was for him at the time. In the end his songs and his performances speak for themselves: In the early 70s Bowie was crossdressing in front of huge audiences.
- Satellite of Love: David Bowie always had his pulse on the artistic avant-garde. While in New York in the early 70s, he had hooked up with the downtown art scene around Andy Warhol's Factory. That's how he had met Lou Reed, who by then had gone back to work at his father's accounting firm. Bowie convinced the Velvet Underground singer-songwriter and Warhol protege to record a new album. Bowie and guitarist Mick Ronson (of the Spiders from Mars) produced the era-defining Transformers. You can hear Bowie playing guitar, saxophone and singing backing vocals on several tracks, including the forever famousWalk on the Wild Side and the melancholic and trippy sci-fi Satellite of Love.
- China Girl: The other radical avant-garde singer Bowie wooed away from Andy Warhol's factory was James Osterberg, AKA Iggy Pop. Bowie had resettled in the heart of Berlin's vibrant and edgy art scene in the mid-70s and brought Iggy there. Together, they recorded Iggy's landmark solo album The Idiot. Songs such as Nightclubbing and China Girl sound like Bowie songs from that era, because they were partly written by Bowie. His own version of China Girl featured the riffs of Niles Rodgers, the genius guitarist of funk band Chic. You've heard Niles Rodgers' licks on the seminal Rapper's Delight, Madonna's Like A Virgin, Duran Duran songs and more recently Daft Punk's Get Lucky. Through his collaboration with Rodgers, Bowie defined the decade's sound. China Girl became an international hit in 1983, thanks to a racy music video (for the time). Bowie used his artistic sense to make groundbreaking music videos throughout the 1980s. He brought the same flair to stadium arenas, with very elaborate sets for his live shows
- Heroes: This song, from the eponymous album, is a masterpiece. It tells the story of two lovers, standing by the Berlin Wall. They hear gunfire and wish they could be "heroes, just for one day." The song's oppressive, hypnotic rhythm and heavily distorted sound evokes the roughness, the despair but also the hope of Berlin in the 1970s. It is a song about the Cold War and how people lose their agency in the face of overwhelming historical forces.
- Ice Ice Baby: The one-hit wonder by Miami's native son, rapper and Grammy winner Robert Van Winkle (AKA Vanilla Ice) owes its fame to a sample of the bass line from the Queen/David Bowie's duet "Under Pressure." The original song is schmaltzy and campy. Ice turned it into a fun and energetic number. He also never paid any royalties nor credited Bowie until he was sued (and lost). In his own unexpected way, through Ice Ice Baby, Bowie contributed to the acceptance and eventual embrace of hip hop among white, suburban kids.
Futurism runs in the family. Duncan Jones, David Bowie's son, wrote and directed a noted science-fiction movie, Moon.
Manu Saadia, the author of Trekonomics, hails from Paris, France. He lives in Los Angeles where he helps tech startups get off the ground. His first and only passion is the future.