This past weekend my girlfriend and I made a quick road trip to catch the last day of the David Bowie Is exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, after watching the associated documentary. I came away with a wealth of new insight into the chameleonic pop star, but the fact that really stuck in my brain was the year of Bowie’s birth: 1947, the same year my father was born.
That fact struck me, because I think of my dad as a quintessential Baby Boomer. Dad spent his childhood in the 50s, a Wild West pattern decorating the linoleum that covered the floor of the bedroom he shared with my uncle Bill. My father was a teenager in the 1960s, and then no sooner had he enrolled at the University of Minnesota than his draft number came up. Soon after Dad’s stint in the service ended, he married my mom and the two of them had four kids, starting with me in 1975.
My father loves music, and when I was growing up we spent a lot of time with Dad’s huge collections of records, tapes, and CDs. I never, ever associated my dad with David Bowie, though. Dad’s collection included some classical music and jazz, a lot of 50s music and a lot of 60s music, and numerous albums from later decades—but mostly pop and folk, such as the Bee Gees and Gordon Lightfoot.
I don’t remember finding any David Bowie, Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, Ramones, Led Zeppelin, or Pink Floyd in my dad’s collection. I discovered that alt Boomer soundtrack on my own, in the 90s, carrying my Rolling Stone Record Guide to discount vinyl stores. Bowie, Freddie Mercury, and Lou Reed came into my Gen-X life not through my dad’s record cabinet—as the Beatles and Bob Dylan did—but from what might as well have been another planet.
Every Boomer has his or her own relationship to music, but as I thought about Bowie’s career I realized that I’d always taken my dad’s story as the default narrative of the post-WWII generation: witnessing the birth of rock and roll as a child, experiencing the mind-blowing 60s as a teenager, then riding the tumultuous Vietnam War era into the 70s, after which it was time to settle down, have kids, and start using that turntable to play Free to Be…You and Me!
Seeing the treasured Little Richard photograph that Bowie bought as a boy drove home for me the fact that Bowie was indeed a Boomer—and left me with a new appreciation for just how forward-thinking Bowie was in his music and style. Bowie’s inspirations are clear—from flamboyant rockers like Little Richard to sonic adventurers like John Cage to the avant-garde theater scene of the 60s—but the confident vision that animated Bowie’s art was singular. He was ahead of his time, ahead of my time, and in some ways even ahead of the time we’re living in right now.
Beyond his classic songs and pioneering music-theater fusion, the aspect of Bowie’s early career that seems most prescient in today’s context is his comfortably fluid sexuality. Whether he was wearing a dress, a suit, or some combination of the two, Bowie was always simply gorgeous. He’s dead sexy in a way that draws on gender conventions without being constrained by them: when he’s in a dress, he doesn’t seem to be in drag, and he looks just as comfortable in a three-piece suit as a full-body fishnet.
It’s hard for me, as someone born the year Young Americans came out, to understand just how pathbreaking Bowie was; as an 80s kid, my point of reference for pop rock androgyny was Boy George. I remember understanding, as a kid, that Boy George was using makeup like a woman, but that was never presented to me as having anything to do with his sexuality. The whole concept of homosexuality wasn’t really anything that was discussed in Catholic school in Duluth, Minnesota, and it was years before I even understood what “drag” was, let alone even started to get my head around the complexities and contradictions of glam rock.
(I Want My MTV, an oral history of the network, opens a fascinating and troubling window into the conflicting views on sexuality and style that marked the 1980s. When Billy Squier’s infamous “Rock Me Tonite” video became the laughingstock of 1984, the conventional wisdom was that the video made Squier look too effeminate; to this day, Squier blames director Kenny Ortega for projecting his own gayness onto Squier. The appallingly heteronormative industry discussion around that video seems incongruous for a decade whose biggest stars included gender-benders like Boy George, Prince, and of course David Bowie.)
Extrapolating backwards, I can only imagine the impact Bowie must have had a decade earlier, when even having men with long hair publicly put their arms around each other, as one Boomer interviewed for the exhibit documentary observes, “simply wasn’t done.”
Of course, a freewheeling sense of style and sexuality was just one of the ways in which Bowie was a pioneer. There was his eclectic musical taste: his ability to venture into different genres without ever sounding forced or losing his own identity. (Critics of Bowie’s drum-and-bass period may beg to differ.) Almost as easily as he hopped genres, Bowie has hopped from record to canvas to stage: thanks to nearly impeccable taste in projects and collaborators, he’s been able to marshal his interests in acting and painting into the service of his musical career. Then there’s his international inclination—notably, the British rocker’s early and intense interest in Japanese art and fashion.
Though the Ziggy Stardust era has early pride of place in David Bowie Is, the show subsequently departs from a strict chronology to showcase the many Bowie personae in a dizzying array of costumes and videos: Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, the Man Who Sold the World, the Goblin King. The genius of Bowie is that at any given moment he seems to float free of space and time, following his own muse—and yet, when assessed from its origins to the present, Bowie’s career clearly follows the contours of his times.
- As the exhibit documentary points out, Bowie’s self-titled 1967 debut album—with the star sporting a mod haircut on the cover—was very much of its era, looking and sounding almost reactionary next to an album released on the very same day: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
- No one did the 70s like Bowie did, but there were important artists who were taking pages from the same book: Peter Gabriel, Roger Waters, David Byrne, Lou Reed.
- The ultrasuave Bowie of the 80s was given a studio sheen by Nile Rodgers, the Chic mastermind who also produced monster hits that decade for Madonna and Duran Duran.
- When you listen to 90s Bowie, it’s unmistakably Bowie and yet also unmistakably music from the same decade that saw the rise of Nine Inch Nails and Goldie.
It’s too soon to hear Bowie’s 2013 album The Next Day with any real historical perspective, but it’s worth noting that Bowie’s been making liberal use of string sections—which are currently enjoying a hot moment in pop music.
One of the exhibit’s most recent photos of Bowie is a shot used to promote The Next Day: a portrait of the artist circa the 2010s, sitting in front of a Terry O’Neill photo of Bowie with William S. Burroughs in 1974. The cover of The Next Day also refers to one of Bowie’s earlier selves: a white box blocks Bowie’s face as seen on the cover of Heroes. Yet while Bowie acknowledges the past—including in his work, with characters like Major Tom recurring across decades of music—he apparently has no interest in visiting the exhibition drawn from his archive.
The artist, it seems, prefers to remember the past—but to live in the present, and look to the future. Maybe that’s how Bowie seems to belong to every generation at once: he’s a Boomer, he’s Gen X, he’s a Millennial. He’s a Starman.