There is no way to properly eulogize David Bowie. It's hard to find anyone not inspired by him in some way over the last five decades, not just in the world of music but film, television and art. If he's not the most influential artist of all time, he's at least in the conversation.
You could try to call him glam or rock or soul or funk or electronic, but "David Bowie" is basically a genre in itself. In the words of Carrie Brownstein, "It feels like we lost something elemental, as if a whole color is gone."
Rather than try to encapsulate him, we'll celebrate his legacy the old-fashioned Chart Magazine way: 9 reasons David Bowie was cool. And, while you read and reflect, here are 100 (yes 100) of his best songs.
This list could be endless, so come share more reasons David Bowie was cool.
1. He never got old
David Bowie was 69 when he left this world, but he could have been 29. He could have been 120. His presence defies time and space.
Bowie knew he was going to die. He knew the internet would be filled with tributes just like this one. So he gave us something new to talk about. His latest (and final) album ★ came out just two days before he died, and it was one of his best. There's so much to unpack in those seven enigmatic, boundary-pushing songs, it almost seems unfair to look too far back.
Bowie wouldn't want us to. 2014's Nothing Has Changed, the first compilation to showcase his entire career, moves in reverse chronological order. The cover of his last album The Next Day (his first after a decade hiatus) literally vandalizes his legacy, obscuring the album art of Heroes, one of his epochal albums. He left behind a swansong, and a stage play, Lazarus, to be performed posthumously. David Robert Jones has passed away. David Bowie is immortal.
2. He was relevant across decades, and often defined them
Here's an easy shortcut for culture historians: if you want to understand an era, just look at David Bowie. From far out space Bowie through the genderfuck of his '70s glam years, blue-eyed coke soul, the kraut-leaning Berlin era, through industrial and techno of the '90s, up until the present, David Bowie can stand in for whole cultural periods. You can plot him against space exploration, sexual revolutions, pop art, the Cold War, the mainstreaming of indie rock. Pick it, and you can track it through Bowie.
3. He was a queer icon
He never committed to identifying as homosexual or bisexual or pansexual, and he spent the last two and a half decades married to the supermodel Iman, but Bowie was a queer icon. From anthems like "Rebel Rebel" to "Boys Keep Swinging" and "John, I'm Only Dancing," Bowie's music, and his especially his live performances and music videos, were a prize for anyone that might have once been derogatorily been called queer or a weirdo or a freak (or, his preferred identity, "other"), and claim that as a badge of pride.
Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt called him (for him at least) "more important than the entire gay rights movement." Out Magazine named Ziggy Stardust the #1 "Greatest, Gayest Album (Of All Time)" (it wasn't the only "gayest" list he appeared on), his music expanded the mind of the protagonist of Jean-Marc Valleé's excellent C.R.A.Z.Y. and was dramatized (unofficially) in Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine. He's an absolute touchstone.
4. He was one of the first artists to embrace the internet
If you need fuel for the "David Bowie could see into the future" fire, take this interview from the year 2000. "I don’t think we’ve even seen the tip of the iceberg," he told an interviewer. "I think the potential of what the internet is going to do society – both good and bad – is unimaginable. I think we’re actually on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying... Is there Life on Mars? Yes, it’s just landed here.”
But Bowie wasn't just talk. In 1996, he made three versions of his drum 'n' bass single "Telling Lies" available exclusively on his website, the first downloadable single by a major artist. Then, in 1999, as the music industry freaked out and mishandled the impending threat of Napster, Bowie put his entire album Hours... up for sale digitally, years before the launch of the iTunes music store.
5. He was the ultimate co-signer
Since long before the co-sign became a major rite of passage for any struggle rapper needing a break, David Bowie was giving his nod of approval to promising young artists of nearly every era since the birth of rock (and he often faced the same "culture vulture" criticisms that Drake gets now).
From Mott The Hoople, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop in the glam era, through Trent Reznor and Massive Attack in the '90s, Arcade Fire and TV On The Radio in indie rock's heyday, and, just recently, Kendrick Lamar and Death Grips, Bowie had his finger on the pulse like almost no other. He might be remembered as an artist first, but as a tastemaker he rivals even John Peel.
6. He helped bring down the Berlin Wall
— GermanForeignOffice (@GermanyDiplo) January 11, 2016
In a city with so much history, both old and new, Berlin attracts a good number of tourists there for Bowie. His infamous '70s Cold War Berlin period that produced the trilogy of albums that stand among his best, Low, "Heroes" and Lodger, plus the Iggy Pop albums The Idiot and Lust For Life, took place at a time when Germany stood divided. It was not a popular tourist destination.
Today, the German Foreign Office legitimized his place in world sociopolitical history, crediting his song "Heroes" (about a pair of lovers separated by the Stasi) for helping bring down the Berlin Wall.
7. He was a living work of art
Bowie was as much of a presence on screen as he was on record, but it doesn't quite feel right to call him an "actor." Though he was a chameleon, casting Bowie in a film brought with it all of his cultural significance and signifiers. And for the best of auteurs, like Jim Henson, David Lynch and Ricky Gervais, this created instantly iconic film and television.
He'd later be treated as an art piece with the exhibition David Bowie Is at the Art Gallery of Ontario. But he, too, helped introduce art stars to the masses. Who can forget the image of Klaus Nomi accompanying the artist in one of the greatest SNL performances of all time?
8. He was aware of what he might be appropriating
There are many reasons to love David Bowie. Here's one. 1982: challenging MTV on their refusal to play black music: pic.twitter.com/0ku30wccVG
— Charlene White (@CharleneWhite) January 11, 2016
His subcultural fluidity sometimes got him accused of appropriation (or, more bluntly, racism), but he seemed aware of what he was playing with. In 1983, during his blue eyed soul period and the early days of MTV, Bowie confronted VJ Mark Goodman on air and asked him why there were "practically no" black artists being played.
“Is it not possible it should be a conviction of the station and of the radio stations to be fair… to make the media more integrated?”
You can read the whole prickly exchange in the tweet above.
9. He was in it for the art, not the pageantry
He was inducted in to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. But he won't just accept any award or recognition that easily. In 2003 he turned down the chance to be knighted by the Queen in the early 2000s. "I seriously don't know what it's for. It's not what I spent my whole life working for," he said.