David Bowie and the Art of Reinvention

Don't believe the news this week. Bowie's still here. He's changed forms countless times before. This is just the latest act, and now he's reincarnated countless times in speakers and earbuds everywhere.

From Ziggy Stardust to the Goblin King and beyond, shuffling off the mortal coil is just another transformation. Like Major Tom, Bowie is just stepping through the door in a most peculiar way.

He never cruised along, even in his golden years. He left us with the jazz-fusion freakout Blackstar. His latest form was as a mad prophet, letting us know he never played it safe. Changing gears and being provocative was his strong suit. But unlike those who wallow in shock value alone, Bowie delivered in style and substance.

It wasn't just about the music he made, it was about fashion ... he lived his life as though he were an art installation.—Martyn Ware of the Human League

We might not all be shape-shifters like David Bowie. But as creative-sapiens, we can still learn from the master of reinvention.

Here are some essentials on how Bowie made metamorphosis work:

  • Embrace ch-ch-ch-changes in your persona
  • Take risks in your Work
  • Always seek inspiration

Let's Freak out in a moonage daydream oh yeah ...

David Bowie with Persona Mask

Embrace Ch-ch-ch-changes in Your Persona

In an age where we spend an inordinate amount of time online, there's been much talk about developing a 'personal brand'. This is the impression we give to our audience through our online (and offline) presence. While an important part of branding is consistency, human beings change. That means a personal brand should also evolve.

This concept is something Bowie understood on an intuitive level. In psychology, the term persona represents the appearance we present to the world. In acting, it means a role or character presented to an audience. Think of both as masks we show the world. This is is how Bowie approached his own 'brand-building'.

Bowie took on different personas over time. Each became a character with a distinct style and personal mythology. How much did these characters represent the 'real' David Bowie? At the very least, they reflected his current interests and aesthetic sensibility. When he shifted direction musically, a new persona often emerged.

Offstage I'm a robot. Onstage I achieve emotion. It's probably why I prefer dressing up as Ziggy to being David.—David Bowie

His most well-known persona was the androgynous alien rock-star Ziggy Stardust. He first performed as Ziggy in 1972 before releasing the breakthrough album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Ziggy was further developed as Aladdin Sane, described by Bowie as "Ziggy goes to America." Aladdin Sane had a lightning bolt painted across his face, and was featured on the 1973 album featuring his name. In July of that year, Ziggy announced his retirement on stage.

Other Bowie personas included Halloween Jack, a glam-trash rock star with an eye patch. And then there was the Thin White Duke, possibly Bowie's most revealing character. Around this time he had a heavy cocaine addiction, and described the Duke as "a mad aristocrat" who was "an amoral zombie."

Like any good brand-master, Bowie recognized the power of a good trademark. This could be a certain look, piece of clothing, or accessory that had great symbolic power.

Some of his most iconic trademarks include:

  • Lightning Bolt Face Makeup (Aladdin Sane)
  • Eyepatch (Halloween Jack)
  • Waistcoat and Slicked-back Hair (The Thin White Duke)

The persona you present to the world is probably more subtle. It wouldn't be congruent for most of us to paint lightning bolts across our faces (but maybe kinda cool). But, we all have something distinctive about us. And that can evolve over time. It's essential to represent that quality when developing your brand for your audience.

David Bowie in Ziggy Stardust Jumpsuit

Take Risks in Your Work

Bowie often took bold directions in his work. He could have cruised off the sound of the mega-successful Ziggy Stardust album. But instead he kept experimenting.

At the start of his career, Bowie was neither a commercial or artistic success. His self-titled debut in 1967 was a whimsical but uneventful album. And if you think everything early Bowie was classic, just listen to his single The Laughing Gnome. It sounds like he's singing with the chipmunks.

Bowie soon found his voice through folk rock with 1969's song Space Oddity, inspired by Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. The accompanying album was more self-assured, and most fans see it as the first 'official' Bowie album.

After that artistic success, he explored a heavier sound on The Man Who Sold the World. His next album, Hunky Dory, took a lyrical turn, and his opening track Changes served as a statement to his future reinvention:

Strange fascination, fascinating me. Changes are taking the pace I'm going through—David Bowie, Changes

After Ziggy and Aladdin Sane, Bowie went into shape-shifter mode once again. 1974's Diamond Dogs was inspired by George Orwell's 1984. He delved into soul with Young Americans. Then there was the critically acclaimed 'Berlin Trilogy' of the late 70's: Low, Heroes, and Lodger.

And Bowie's career was not without missteps. There were his self-proclaimed "Phil Collins years" in the 80's. But even these had standout tracks and a distinct sound.

Much like the Beatles, the creative lesson to take from Bowie is to never stop trying new things. It's especially challenging after having success. It's all too easy to recycle your greatest hits. But that only leads to creative stagnation.

David Bowie in front of Portrait with William Burroughs

Always Seek Inspiration

A key catalyst for an artist's evolution is finding creative inspiration. This often happens by:

  • Being taught by other artists
  • Collaborating with other artists
  • Studying the arts and other subjects

As individualistic as Bowie was, you would think that he mostly worked alone. But his reinvention was often due to his many collaborations.

One of his earliest inspirations was the dancer and mime Lindsay Kemp. Kemp was Bowie's dance teacher. He was instrumental in Bowie breaking out of a creative rut and taking more chances in his work, as well as becoming a better dancer and showman.

In an interview, Kemp said:

I really believe that movement is the soul's desire to be free. And therefore [I] had to begin by kind of freeing [Bowie] from his timidity, his shyness ... He certainly had the imagination of the dancer. But I told him, I encouraged him to be more audacious, you know, more experimental. To take risks and so on.

It was only after working with Kemp that Bowie came up with the theatrics surrounding his Ziggy Stardust persona. Bowie said of Kemp: "His day-to-day life was the most theatrical thing I had ever seen, ever. It was everything I thought Bohemia probably was. I joined the circus."

Bowie's career eventually became one collaboration after another. His relationship with Dancer Hermione Farthingale influenced his folk direction and early lyrics. His collaboration with Brian Eno was an important step for ambient electronic music. Bowie was also instrumental in the careers of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Luther Vandross.

Just to name a few others Bowie teamed up with:

  • Iggy Pop
  • Lou Reed
  • John Lennon
  • Bing Crosby
  • Klaus Nomi
  • Queen
  • Nile Rodgers
  • Tina Turner
  • Mick Jagger
  • Trent Reznor

But Bowie didn't stop at collaboration. He was a lifetime student of the arts. He dabbled in painting and had a knack for photography. It could explain why the visuals of his album covers, videos, and shows were so strong.

He was also widely read. Bowie's reading list included everything from The Gnostic Gospels to The Trial of Henry Kissinger. He also met novelist William Burroughs, an encounter that was immortalized in a 1974 issue of Rolling Stone.

What does all this mean? That eclectic exploration is the fuel for creative reinvention. Bowie could express so much diversity in his music because he lived a life rich in influence, collaboration, and experience.

So, whether your work is primarily solitary or collaborative, there are avenues for you to explore. Even the simple act of reading a variety of books can help you and your work to evolve. The only requirement is an insatiable cultural curiosity.

The biggest lesson from Bowie? That the creative game is always at play, and it never ends. No matter where you're at, there's always new forms to take.

I'm guessing Bowie is taking on some new forms as we speak.