Supported by dissatisfaction with the status quo.
A little after 6 Monday morning I heard Lisa walking down the creaky stairs and toward the kitchen. I had fallen asleep reading on the couch. As is my habit, I reached for my phone to see what happened overnight. David Bowie had died, and for first time I really felt 50. Selfishly, I considered my own mortality. He was 69. “Really?” I thought. Of course he was, but unlike The Stones, his age hadn’t become a running joke.
In my mind, David Bowie had always been paradoxically older and younger. It might be unfair to say it, but where Madonna has clumsily shed personas to remain relevant, Bowie’s career changes were a choreography that was externally seamless but internally complex. Even his death was an arrangement: Blackstar, his 25th studio album and universally critically acclaimed, was released just days before his death. He went electro-acoustic jazz. In this age?
“I don't know where I'm going from here, but I promise it won't be boring,” is a celebrated quote from his 50th birthday. What speaks more to the man’s life and career is his 2002 quote from 60 Minutes: “I'm just an individual who doesn't feel that I need to have somebody qualify my work in any particular way. I'm working for me.”
For some of us, the Bowie moment was the 1983 album “Let’s Dance.” Co-produced with Nile Rodgers, a musician and songwriter whose band disco-funk band Chic was widely admired and whose sound was sought after.
I was a failing, flailing college freshman at the time, but one didn’t need courses in Critical Theory to understand the significance of the moment. Rendering blacks invisible on television was standard. It was great that I could find Tears for Fears, but where was Grandmaster Flash? Was English angst more important than urban realism?
With that in mind, it can’t be overstated how important it was for Bowie to call out MTV’s obvious racial exclusion of black artists in 1983. I hadn’t thought about it until a friend reposted the interview on Facebook.
Bowie: It occurred to me, having watched MTV over the last few months, that’s it’s a solid enterprise, really. It’s got a lot going for it. I’m just floored by the fact that there are so few black artists featured on it. Why is that?
MTV VJ Mark Goodman: I think we’re trying to move in that direction. We want to play artists that seem to be doing music that fits into what we want to play for MTV. The company is thinking in terms of narrow-casting.
Bowie: That’s evident. It’s evident in the fact that the only few black artists that one does see are on about 2:30 in the morning to around 6. Very few are featured predominantly during the day.
Here's Bowie putting the thumbscrews on MTV:
Here is this most elegant enigma taking a run at the brand that was making him famous. MTV would eventually (and some say) unfortunately embrace black culture, particularly hip-hop. At 50, I can even appreciate it much more than I did at 18.
By the time I started to consider the freeing androgyny of Ziggy Stardust—I was, after all, a somewhat timid, but curious Catholic school boy in the ‘70s—Bowie had moved on to funk, and was flushing Major Tom and so much drug excess with “Ashes to Ashes.”
I wonder how many young oddballs found kinship with the persona. My friend Jeff, who looked a bit like David Bowie, was affected by Bowie’s glam aesthetic, and Jeff was a waifish child who was teased for being effeminate, so Bowie’s campiness and theatrical flare was a balm for him (as were Freddie Mercury and Queen.) “Under Pressure” was as perfect a musical gift as there ever was.
Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” went supernova. Rodgers’ presence made sense—and not just in a corporate way. He was a proven hit deliverer in the genre. Motown informed so much of Bowie’s musical foundation—it was inevitable that he’d produce an homage to black funk and soul. (Dear God, the “Dancing in the Street” duet with Mick Jagger is the extreme antithesis of “Under Pressure.” The song should be stricken; the video never shown.)
Critics have characterized the album as full of hall-of-fame grooves like “Modern Love” and “Let’s Dance,” but lacking in substance. It was corporate. It was safe.
Yet, unlike his contemporaries, his classic elegant “wtf?” to MTV is the kind of unsafe act that assured his transcendence from pop idol to thoughtful influencer, a notion that David Bowie would find silly:
“I’m always amazed that people take what I say seriously. I don't even take what I am seriously.”
Fred McKissack Jr. is a writer, editor, and longtime contributor to The Progressive.
(Note: an earlier version of this post misattributed the influence of David Bowie's wife Iman, whom Bowie did not meet until 1990. Mr. McKissack regrets the error.)