Nearly every discussion of David Bowie's career emphasizes his propensity for change, summed up by the much-beloved phrase "musical chameleon." As clichéd as that conversation can be, most of it holds true - Bowie has displayed an amazing ability to transform and reinvent his art on a consistent basis. Yet despite the constant flux of his image, there are a number of themes that have stayed throughout most of his five(!) decades of pop stardom.
Closely studying his video output is one way of observing Bowie's ideas develop over time. From the obvious love affair with extravagant show to his more subtle social commentaries, Bowie's videography is perhaps the most unique and influential of any one musician in the history of music video. He single-handedly revolutionized and expanded the form - much in the same way he altered the course of rock 'n roll. The most vital legacy of Bowie is not how often he switched costumes, but how drastically he changed the landscape of pop art in the process.
I Am What I Play: The Ziggy Stardust Era
The Elvis-gyrating and suggestive guitar motions are a modest preview of what was to come. This and the following two clips are taken from a marginally successful promotional film made in 1969, Love You Till Tuesday, meant to introduce the world to the future icon. Even as it failed to peak the interest of potential buyers, it's clear from the first shot that David Bowie is a performer, through and through.
(If you follow the link above you can watch the version without the movie titles.)
Bowie is in prime music hall form, reminding us all that he once shared a name with Davy Jones. Yet even at his cheesiest extreme, he has the camera wrapped around his flighty finger.
It's hard to justify three videos for any single song, but "Space Oddity" is such a grand achievement that it almost demands repeated attention. The original version features an alternate take on the classic song, and is the most interesting of the three. Director Thomson supposedly planned a more risqué piece, with presumably more sex and psychedelia, but what remains is a humorous and creepy visualization of Major Tom's really bad trip - from which he never returns. The video also stars then girlfriend Hermione Farthingale, who apparently influenced the writing of the song. Her presence, and the way the video concludes, suggests that love (or lust) has pushed the singer into space as much as any drug might have.
Mick Rock's take, which is decidedly darker from the get go, matches Major Tom's disconnect from ground control with hints of paranoia and mental collapse. The green transmissions on the screen are the literal visualization of the sound waves, but the rest of the video peeks into the thoughts behind the notes. The sitting Bowie suggests that Tom never leaves the ground, and that his messages echo inside his own empty control room. The video also plays upon the dramatic impact of the music by emphasizing the guitar Bowie holds in his lap - music is yet another conduit to escape.
In the third video Bowie looks Dylan-esque with his curly hair and an acoustic strapped to his shoulder. There's also an improvement in trippy camera effects from the first one. The rumbling smoke at his feet and the occasional moments of darkness once again highlight the dual nature of the experience, but the decision to end in shadow makes director David Mallet's interpretation clear.
It's fairly certain from the song itself that the singer wants much more than a dance, but even if he were simply seeking a tango, the performers in this video demonstrate the potential eroticism of "only dancing." The director does a good job of magnifying the three essential components of the track - the big drums, guitars and Bowie himself. While the singer sells desire and suppression through a few hand gestures and a pensive look on his face, the camera spins around him and his burning red hair.
Co-starring Cynthia Foxe, a friend of Bowie and Andy Warhol, director Mick Rock channels the street-level Velvet of the song with the glamour of Hollywood life. Foxe looks a bit like Jean Harlowe, dancing energetic circles around the unaffected Ziggy Stardust - while Bowie jams out with the Spiders From Mars.
The concepts of guise, ambiguity and escapism have been central to David Bowie's popular image from the very beginning. The artist himself was well aware of his propensity for show and his naturally androgynous looks - and he used both as tools for expressing a sense of detached cool and shifting identity. One of his many songs about the distant corners of space, "Life on Mars" uses the outsider persona to criticize and show frustration with the current state of the world.
Director Rock focuses deeply on Bowie's "alien" characteristics, and sets him up to contrast the "saddening bore" mentioned in the song. From heavy face paint to close-ups on his lengthy eyelashes, Bowie is the complete antithesis of the macho "cavemen" who pollute society with unnecessary "fighting in the dance hall." He's also covered in a stark white color that nearly blends him into the studio background - mirroring his feeling of despair in this suffocating social environment. It's the type of loneliness that leads one to search for answers beyond the stars.
Though the film wasn't officially released until '83, this is a chronicle of the final performance of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars in 1973. Directed by the legendary Pennebaker (Don't Look Back), it captures David Bowie at his highest peak as a performer. The crowds are chaotic and obsessive, creating an infectious aura around the concert, which Pennebaker translates well.
The version of the Velvet Underground classic here is quite strong, which comes as no surprise considering Bowie's admiration for the band and his own ability to transform. Though upon release "Changes" wasn't a huge hit, it went on to become one of his most well-known and (for obvious reasons) representative of his entire career (and probably inspired this children's television theme).
Bowie physically connects with his audience through his music, and shots of his passionate singing are coupled with desperately reaching hands from the crowd. The footage is compiled from various shows during his tours in the 70's, and the singer is shown to joyfully personify the "cigarette" lifestyle promoted in his song. It isn't necessarily "live fast, die young," but more along the lines of - take as many drags while you still can.
There's far less awkwardness here than you might expect, and that's chiefly due to Crosby's class and Bowie's more than capable acting skills (Labyrinth, The Prestige). Neither of them looks too uncomfortable, despite the fact the situation is clearly forced. It was a huge hit as well, reaching as high as # 3 on the UK charts.
Low did in fact spawn singles, even if it didn't storm the charts like many of his preceding albums. Yet "Be My Wife" is probably the most accessible track on the landmark record that initiated his "Berlin Trilogy." The heavy riffs are emphasized here by the prominently placed electric guitar and the artist's emotive playing - all in a white setting that recalls the detached "Life on Mars."
There's an improvised feel to the song, and this spontaneity is brought out through Bowie's off-kilter acting - including a humorously blatant stroking of his guitar fret. The combination of this performance and his appearance is also purportedly meant to reference silent film star Buster Keaton. As we've seen recently with faux-punk glam bands, the silent form has become popular amongst musicians who admire its over-the-top acting and excessive use of eyeliner. Yet here Bowie uses it as a satirical tool to contrast the apparent earnestness of the lyrics, "share my life."
When the video starts, as Bowie stands in shadows backed by the bright lights, it almost looks as if he's wearing a gown - rather than a full-body leather jumper. In either case, the singer gives an impassioned performance of his huge hit, and even if the lyrics are more hopeful than sexy - a strategically placed light makes sure dirty things are on our mind throughout.
Though "Boys Keep Swinging" was a top ten hit in the UK, RCA decided against releasing it as the lead single for Lodger in the US. There were a couple of reasons for that decision, but David Mallet's controversial video likely played a major role. It would be easy enough to censor lines like "When you're a boy, other boys check you out" (which is what Saturday Night Live did when Bowie performed it on the show), but the video makes it impossible to avoid the issues at hand.
Bowie attacks the unequal standards of our patriarchal society and plays on gender stereotypes with sarcastic lines like, "Life is a pop of the cherry" and "clothes always fit ya." Mallet begins the video with the singer in full-on Elvis mode, a mock representation of standard idealistic 'masculinity.' Then he slowly moves further and further away from that set-up, first introducing female back up singers and then revealing that they are all in fact Bowie in drag.
In the first two cases the singer rips off his wig and wipes away the lipstick, as if to confront the audience with the truth of their deeply held assumptions on gender. Yet he ends the video with wig on - showing us the silliness of even needing to remove make-up in order to prove your sex, and that neither women nor men should be treated differently based on their physical appearance alone. The sad part is, you couldn't easily get this on national television today.
The line, "I am a DJ, I am what I play," could easily be David Bowie's slogan as an artist. It not only implies multiple records spinning at once, but also references devotion to the craft which often supersedes any sense of personal identity. Though with his record smashing he seems to violently reject the trappings of music, his walk amongst the people rejuvenates his love for the role as spokesperson for the masses - "I've got believers."
Yet despite the onslaught of kisses and well-wishers, there remains an individual struggling to emerge from under the pressures of stardom. Bowie tears down the shades to reveal a piercing bright light, and defiantly smashes a mirror that reflects a false image. But even after spray-painting a window in rebellion, he dejectedly plants a record on the glass - as if forever trapped by his art.
Mallet injects even more narcissism into Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray by having Bowie play the role of both painter and subject - locked in his personal attic. His obsession with his own beauty leads to physical weakness and rapid aging, not to mention psychological torment. Yet he isn't initially staring into the mirror, but merely looking at an artistic representation of himself (a fallen angel that rises in the opening). This created image is what he truly falls in love with.
In that way the video continues the themes we saw in "DJ" and "Boys Keep Swinging," a self-reflective look at Bowie the artist and how that affects or represents Bowie the person. Here the allure of performance and idolatry becomes an addiction, a room from which the artist cannot escape. Yet just as Wilde saw Dorian almost as an ideal (1), Bowie gives such an ecstatic portrayal of his character that one imagines he still finds much to love in that mirror.
One of the most influential and popular videos of all-time, when released the £250,000 "Ashes to Ashes" was also the most expensive video ever made. Utilizing ambitious special effects, a larger cast and multiple locations - this was Bowie and Mallet's grandest visual statement to date. It's no shock then that the accompanying song is also considered amongst the more intricate works in the artist's oeuvre, and that the single went on to dominate the UK charts.
The video begins with Bowie standing on the red earth of a distant planet, proving there is indeed life on mars. Major Tom has landed here, for who knows how long, but Bowie seems far less sympathetic to his plight this time around. He comes right out and calls him a junky, and the bulldozing funeral march is his over-the-top burial of the character. Yet the appeal of Tom is tangled up in his mind too deeply to be removed completely - in the final shot the addicted inner Bowie looks sinisterly alive.
This prison-like distance from reality is represented in a number of novel ways throughout the video. The Wizard of Oz march down the yellow brick road to freedom conjures up thoughts of home, and we later see Bowie trapped in his mother's kitchen. The scene with one chair in a claustrophobic space represents his cognizant struggle to emerge from this hole (and was recently recycled by Sophie Muller for Rufus Wainwright's "Going to a Town"). Even when he seems to have escaped this place and takes a walk along the beach with his mother, he is still detached and lifeless. The greatest fear of the addict, like a convict released from jail, is that once they hit the ground they will fail to ever adjust back to life in the real world.
Hot on the heels of the success of "Ashes to Ashes," this video was another huge success for Mallet and Bowie. The subdued delivery of the chorus highlights the monotony of fickle fans ready to follow any command, and the costumed followers in line for more soup predict the zombies of "Thriller" (some of the dance moves do the same). Bowie has said the song is less about fascism than some critics have claimed, because rather than simply criticizing the suppression of the individual voice in an authoritarian environment - the singer is also wondering why people are so easily swayed by fashions in the first place. We laugh at the man awkwardly hopping on the dance floor or the drummer playing an invisible drum, yet we are all at one time or another victims of popular fads - even the trend-setting Bowie himself.
Mallet does so much here with such a simple idea. His varying depictions of personally released pressure, contained pressure and the horrible effects of an entire society controlled by pressure are dead-on. Perhaps none more so than his theme, like that of the song, of love as the ultimate liberation from anxiety - both physically and mentally.
No matter how stripped-down the setting or sound, one can never entirely remove the dramatic performance from the dramatic performer. It shouldn't come as any shock that these songs were recorded for Bertolt Brecht’s play Baal, as they carry the weight of melodrama in every note. Mallet's videos are as deceptively simple here as Bowie's songs, using lights and shadows to create creeping suspense around the rising tension of the music. The close-ups on Bowie's facial expressions, and particularly his mouth, give emphasis to the words - and yet at the same time they strangely distract us from digesting the complete story.
...forward to Part 2...
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