A lifetime of character building: Exploring the canonicity of David Bowie's alter-egos

Published on February 23 2016

Well, looks like SOMEONE hasn't been taking their protein pills...

Well, looks like SOMEONE hasn't been taking their protein pills...

Before the notification on my iPad had finished ringing with the news of David Bowie’s death, “Blackstar” was already queued up. Most music nerds probably reacted in such shock, but for me it was equally a kickback of guilt, since I’d already waited nearly 48 hours before listening to the unexpected swan-song album in its entirety.

If you haven’t seen it yet, the title-track’s video is a collaborative effort with director Johan Renck, and typical of Bowie it’s also a miniature sci-fi epic of the most ritualistic sort. The ten-minute story of space theology has been analyzed through and through, with half-truths and retracted comments coming out relating its influence and meaning to Breast Cancer, old Pop-Eye cartoons, and even ISIS. Yet to me the immediate stand-out, and longest lasting image, was the corpse of Major Tom, whose crystalline skull is carried off to be ceremoniously whisked into oblivion. Renck has neither confirmed nor denied whether that was indeed the fictional astronaut, and I agree its better that way. To me, the mere possibility nevertheless shines light on a reflective topic that sits at the very heart and soul of the man's life’s work; that once you jive past the catchy pop tunes, his early avant-garde androgynous value and radically shifting genres, the enduring appeal of David Bowie has always been fuelled by character reinvention.

Every new unveiled persona instilled its own fictitious reality within his work, masterfully bridging the gap between man, music and…whatever the hell Aladdin Sane was supposed to be. The world lost its one truly self-sufficient music artist 45 days ago today, yet throughout the 70’s and 80’s the only people to lose more ‘lives’ than Bowie himself were the era’s video gamers. Whilst each new mask that the Brixton rocker bore was by its own nature a fable, perhaps the reason no other theatrically inclined artist has made the ‘alter-ego’ so essential to their career is because there was a unique, autobiographical grounding behind each of David Bowie’s latest self-imposed roles. Whether you’re Prince, Norah Jones or Chris Sievey, no one could be Bowie quite like Bowie - not even Bowie.

Each character wasn’t simply an escape from his mainstage act or an attempt to trial a new genre. Whereas most artists will retire their creations with as much ceremony as quietly handing back the costume, Bowie made spectacle out of the cycle of reinvention, with death being entrenched as a necessary part of each. The most notorious example was the retirement of the galaxy’s most famous fiery-haired third-dimensional sexual Ziggy Stardust. Even though it was quite clearly setup with the album closer “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”, the extraterrestrial miming rock star’s famous farewell speech at the Hammersmith Apollo on July 3rd, 1973 was ambiguous enough to strike fear into Bowie’s soaring fanbase, but suitably symbolic to suit the concept album and bring it to life on stage.

Bowie would similarly breathe life and reap death with his later creations; the Thin White Duke perished as his creator’s cocaine and red pepper habit finally began to surcease, Halloween Jack ironically ceased to exist after the ‘Diamond Dogs’ tour was renamed to the ‘Soul’ tour, and well, we already discussed the potential astral fate waiting for strung out junkie Major Tom. As these examples are listed off, it’s easy for any casual fanatic to spot the ever present similarities between the artist’s personal strife and those of his characters, although let’s be honest, that job was already long taken up by the music-consuming public, who could start a decade long conversation about Bowie’s sexuality just from Ziggy Stardust’s 1972 Top of the Pops performance, or a controversy of fascist views that were ultimately blamed on ‘the White Duke’s spiraling erratic behaviour.

I tried really hard to not make a pun about Bowie's frequent ch-changes but, well...

I tried really hard to not make a pun about Bowie's frequent ch-changes but, well...

An actor before he was an actor, part of this stems from how Bowie theatrically imbued heavy portions of himself into his alter-egos. His claim that what he did on stage was “theatre, and only theatre…” is perfectly valid, but that just drives the interest in what fueled this actor’s method. Every nervous smile from Ziggy or reference to both Major Tom and his maker’s withdrawing drug abuse ultimately seem rooted in a reality, but how genuine that reality is has often been open to interpretation. I don’t believe Karl Popper ever gave a comment on David Bowie, perhaps in fear that if he acknowledged listening to his work, he may had to upgrade his three worlds concept (the physical world, the mental world and all objective knowledge) to include an additional ‘Bowie World’.

One artist who attempts much of the same biographical blurring in his work as Bowie did is the director Alejandro Jadorosky, who’s aptly titled The Dance of Reality is a must-see retelling of his early childhood living under his strict communist father, embedding every detail with surreal comedy and fantastical metaphor. The great shame is that these two will now never work together, especially since Bowie was capable of carrying on his all-inclusive character creation into even the most obscure of projects. Whilst we all know of Jared the Goblin King from Labrynth or his you’re-a-celebrity-if-you-saw-it theatre portrayal of The Elephant Man, more of Bowie’s strange creations can be found in the 1999 adventure game Omikron: The Nomad Soul (which he also provided a soundtrack and design elements for), or the living magic trick that is Phillip Jeffries in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (a brief appearance that includes ghost transmissions, masked afro-men and the world’s whitest white suit…three minutes with David Lynch well spent).

David Bowie characters: each more predictably unpredictable than the last.

David Bowie characters: each more predictably unpredictable than the last.

One of the most fascinating aspects surrounding the death of David Bowie is that, whilst researching this article, when I searched 'death of Ziggy Stardust', news reports of Bowie's actual passing were what popped up in Google. Despite being his most well known creation, ol' Ziggy doesn't even have his own Wikipedia page - any attempt to search for him simply redirects to the rockstar behind the lightning stripe. Whether this amusing little oddity was deliberately played out or a simple coincidence, I can think of no better demonstration of how much Bowie became his characters, and in turn how they became him.

Even in his latest and last pieces, Bowie was still playing with the create-a-character tool. The strange new figures in “Blackstar” – Button Eyes, the flamboyant trickster and the ‘priest guy’ – may not be his most developed, but they continue his legacy of mixing haunting behavior with something deeper to dig for. Perhaps you didn’t really care much for David Bowie’s canon, and purely enjoyed the fact he could reliably create a great pop beat. That’s perfectly fine – you’re still appreciating the work of an artist who didn’t just refuse to lay down an image, he turned that lack of identity into the core of his brand. Long live the Bowieverse.

Next Time: From Metroid to Mass Effect: How video games tackle Genetic Modification

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Written by The Urban Shepherd

Published on #Music Articles

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