Yesterday morning, while I was on my way to DJing a three-hour radio tribute to the just-deceased David Bowie, my editor pinged me to see if I could, perhaps, contribute a piece to Noisey's offerings of Bowie remembrances. Perhaps a few thoughts about Bowie and pop, he suggested, and I agreed—I'd be immersed in the man's catalog for a substantial chunk of time, and surely I'd come up with something over the course of the day.
That I had such an idea is the sort of folly that might inspire one of Bowie's sly grins, which defined so much of his profile in my first interactions with his work—the MTV-staple clips for the majestic "Modern Love" and the stark "Let's Dance," not to mention the exercise in eye-popping dandiness that was the video for his collaborative "Dancing In The Street" cover.
Removing David Bowie from the last half-century of pop would result in its edges being less pointed, its colors being less vibrant, its playfulness being reined in sharply; talking about how Bowie influenced it is like talking about how oxygen affects the breathing process. He's essential for his expansive view on music, which blended rock and soul and cabaret and funk and glam and a whole lot of charisma—songs like the slick "DJ," the galloping "Look Back in Anger," and the slowly simmering "'Heroes'" still sound futuristic nearly four decades after being first pressed to wax, while even underneath the super-shiny '80s production, the crumpled optimism of "Modern Love" lands a gut-punch.
More importantly—and crucial to the MTV age that he helped usher in and tried to push out of its early-80s AOR comfort zone—Bowie, through his use of eye-popping visuals in concert and on film, forced people to look at him as they listened, to take him in fully, watch as he shape-shifted in accordance with rhythms that were all his own, defying boundaries of gender and genre. As he got older, he borrowed more from younger bands, who he would see regularly while in New York; he toured and collaborating with Trent Reznor in the mid-90s, and in 2013 he contributed backup vocals on the Arcade Fire's jittery disco track "Reflektor." His willingness to gamble with the constraints of popular music persisted all the way through Blackstar, the Kendrick Lamar-inspired meditation on mortality that Tony Visconti described as a "David Bowie album with jazz musicians [who] weren't necessarily going to play jazz." The through line remains a drive to push forward, even if doing so resulted in what was viewed in the moment as a stumble; such is the nature of coloring outside the lines.
The best pop of the past 16 years embraced the audacity of Bowie toward its own ends. Draw up a list of the 2000s' most potent singles and the Thin White Duke's influence will be made plain—the Bond-3000 grandiosity of "Toxic," the robot fashion show of "Bad Romance," the shorted-out sexuality of "Last Nite," the sax fantasia of "Run Away with Me," the funked-up syncopations and meticulous detail of Missy Elliott's highest points. And then there's the involvement of Nile Rodgers, who today credited Bowie with his 80s renaissance, on "Get Lucky." Heck, you could draw a straight line between the Adele's balls-out performance on "Rolling in the Deep" and Bowie's intense throwdown on "Under Pressure."
If anything, pop as it stands right now—dominated by toxic masculinity imported from Canada on one end, and the weeniness of Charlie Puth and Shawn Mendes on the other, with Taylor Swift and her ever-expanding squad of besties in the middle—could use a dose or two of Bowie's eagerness to fuck with whatever paradigms might be stunting the world's growth.
But the mid-2010s are a weird moment when boastfulness is celebrated while simultaneously used as a cloak to cover up the sort of fear that results from constantly feeling watched and sensing the need to "keep up" with whatever set of Joneses the market has placed nearby for comparison points. Bowie's biggest leaps of image came during the 70s, when he could work out ideas in a sphere that, even when it tsk-tsked him for chasing trends in a way was perceived as too close, gave him space to breathe. (Think about how many performances he gave during his first decade of existence that aren't on YouTube, and think about any artist today escaping scrutiny similarly.) He did embrace the Internet early on—awkwardly moderated CompuServe chats and all—but getting in as early as he did allowed him to elude the high-powered microscope that turned so many of the past's idols into sources for sub-basement one-liners centered on aging and some notion of cool that runs out like mortality's hourglass.
The real joke, of course, was that Bowie's cool came from his remaining true to himself—even under the layers of makeup and the sequin-spangled getups, his artistic impulses came from a place deep within. If it didn't work, it didn't work; but even those misfires, like the jaunty-for-its-own-sake "Streets" video, represent an impulse acted on, a marker driven into the ground. He kept going, learning from his previous steps while constantly moving forward, cutting a human profile while seeming beamed in from another dimension.
Maura Johnston tries. She tries. Follow her on Twitter.