David Bowie was as iconic as he was earconic

Be the first to comment

The music legend was as much about the way things looked as the way things sounded

The first rock concert I ever went to was David Bowie at Madison Square Garden May 8, 1978.

I was 13 years old. And I had already been "into Bowie" for two years.

My older sister had turned me onto the song "Changes." And then let me borrow her "Diamond Dogs" LP. I remember my young head kind of exploded when I saw this half man/half dog on the album cover. I have to admit it was a bit scary. But I was also intrigued.

I put the vinyl on my player and the rest is, well, my personal rock ‘n’ roll history. You see, from that day forward, David Bowie became one of the players in the soundtrack to my life.

David Bowie was one of my heroes. I loved his songs. I was mesmerized by his images. I am awestruck by his incredible and indelible influence on pop culture.

But first and foremost, it was the songs. This morning, when I heard the news of his death, I went straight to Apple iTunes and looked at the different playlists. As a fan, I have "my songs." I love "Jean Genie" and "This Is Not America." Yet when I looked at the playlists en masse, I was simply blown away by just how many hits David Bowie had. And how many songs I truly loved. From "Space Oddity" to "Modern Love" to "Ashes To Ashes" and so many in between and beyond.

And not just Bowie music, but there were all of the licks and samples that appeared in places like Vanilla Ice’s "Ice Ice Baby" and Puff Daddy’s "Been Around The World" to name but a few.

Not surprisingly, the man who blurred gender lines, crossed over and performed nearly every kind of modern music: rock ‘n’ roll, electronic, disco, soul, folk, funk, punk, rap — even a Christmas classic, "The Little Drummer Boy" with the legendary Bing Crosby.

The songs alone would be enough to make David Bowie a legend. But of course there was so much more. There was the visual side of the equation.

David Bowie was as much about the way things looked as the way things sounded.

Long before MTV, David Bowie was visualizing his stories and songs. Early on, he was a glam rocker personifying the space-influenced, ginger-haired character he created, Ziggy Stardust. He then disrupted himself and became the elegant Thin White Duke. From there, he changed again during his "Berlin Period," and he then adapted all of the trappings of New Wave during the 1980s. No matter the decade, no matter the style, David Bowie not only felt current — he felt a step ahead.

And beyond his persona there was Bowie’s art direction for album covers and music videos. He was a master curator utilizing dramatic photography and costuming ("Aladdin Sane"), wonderful illustration ("Scary Monsters"), and brilliant collage ("Best of Bowie").
His music videos also pushed the boundaries. He was fond of outrageous imagery and multiple plot points. His golden makeup in "Blue Jean" along with a stalking Trent Reznor and bizarre New Orleans funeral for "I’m Afraid of Americans" are two such examples. While songs like "Fashion" and "Let’s Dance" were like mini-films of the late great Italian director, Federico Fellini.

In my advertising world, it was nice to see David Bowie collaborate with our agency, TBWA\Chiat\Day, on two occasions. The first was in 2001 when the team in New York created one of the most popular concepts in the famous Absolut vodka campaign. It was part of the "Album Covers" effort that featured the brand with the likes of John and Yoko; The Velvet Underground; The Sex Pistols; and of course, David Bowie.

The concept was to place an Absolut bottle in place of the "amoebe globule" on Bowie’s iconic "Aladdin Sane" album. The headline? "Absolut Bowie." The effect? The man who led music and fashion trends would represent the vodka brand that did the same.
David Bowie also played along with us when we launched XM Satellite Radio in 2005. David was a good sport, falling from the sky in the launch film, and working some schtick with Snoop Dogg in the follow-up film.  

Of course, we weren’t the only agency to benefit from David Bowie’s talents. Bowie did ads most recently for Louis Vuitton and previously for Pepsi and Vittel.

All of which brings me to this past weekend. I was listening to his new album, which launched last week. I was thinking how cool it is that he’s still making fresh, relevant music. And I admired the simplicity of the branding of the album — a black star on white reflecting the album’s name, "Blackstar."

That was on Saturday. At 5 a.m. Monday morning, I found out that the man who fell to Earth had left the Earth. Funny, on Sunday I saw an epic, ethereal rainbow magnificently cast over the East River from my apartment window. It seemed so beautiful, yet so strange. It strikes me now that it just might have been the vapor trail of David Bowie’s final exit.

Rob Schwartz is the CEO of TBWA\Chiat\Day New York.