Here’s a hint: He was born in 1947, and he was bending genders and aestheticizing technology before Steve Jobs took his first hit of acid.
It’s David Bowie. Gender, squads, tech — he digested the great issues of our time decades ago.
2015 is the year of gender fluidity.
While Time magazine might have said that 2014 was the transgender tipping point, 2015 was the year that gender became part of the everyday conversation. This was undoubtedly helped along by Jenner, who dominated the media for much of the year.
But the first pop icon to thrust the fluid nature of gender into the cultural conversation was Bowie.
A human (and sometimes alien) of endless personas, Bowie’s alter-egos tended to be neither (or perhaps both) masculine and feminine, like Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, and Thin White Duke. Bowie played with our conceptions of gender — whether by dressing up in kimono or leotard — and inspired his fans to do the same.
“Bowie’s mutating personas do not simply emerge from a constant need for transformation,” writes critic Lisa Perrott for The Conversation. “They are created as part of a complex process of performativity, in which Bowie mimics and re-animates the gestural traits of performers such as Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Greta Garbo, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra.”
A full 40 years ago, Bowie was generating questions about gender that the world is only now starting to answer.
2015 is the year of squad goals.
While artists have been collaborating since before Vincent Van Gogh got his ear cut off by fellow impressionist Paul Gaugain, 2015 saw the formation of #squadgoals — specifically Taylor Swift’s carefully curated crew of Lorde, the Haim sisters, Lena Dunham, and roughly 200 super models.
But Swift, genius that she is, still hasn’t come close to Bowie, squad-wise.
• When Bowie was (maybe) trying to get off drugs, he holed up in Berlin with punk rock genius Iggy Pop.
• Bowie created one of the greatest rock duets of all time with “Under Pressure,” his collaboration with Freddie Mercury and Queen.
• Bowie worked closely with the inventor of American indie rock, Lou Reed, for years. He co-produced “Transformer,” perhaps Reed’s greatest commercial success.
In other words, Bowie was one of the original crew curators.
2015 is the year where technology has most become a part of our identities.
We’re only getting more tethered to our phones, as reports indicate that we spend around 3 hours a day on smartphones. Online dating has lost its stigma, Pew Research indicates, with fewer people thinking that it’s a sign of desperation. And after talking with a real life cyborg, we’re increasingly convinced that we’re all going to get electronic implants sometime soon.
What prophet foretold and decoded these things?
Mr. Bowie, naturally.
In the 2003 essay “Space Oddities: Aliens, Futurism and Meaning in Popular Music,” University of Toronto music historian Ken McLeod uses the breakthrough “Space Oddity” as a case study in how Bowie reflected the relationship we have with technology:
Bowie uses a series of atonal and rhythmically irregular tape effects and electronic squelches in combination with an ethereal string section to represent the defamiliarising experience of space.
The combination of avant-garde electronic sounds and instruments juxtaposed with familiar rock timbres [like the strum of acoustic guitar and a military style drum beat] provides a musical analogue for a lyrical content of the song that warns of the dangers of technological nihilism and alienation in an increasingly dehumanized world.
Though released in 1969, “Space Oddity” nails the feeling of being alive in 2015, as though it were written for today.
In many ways, it was.
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