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David Bowie: The star that rewrote the language of pop

Ruben Kalus / Kate Müser (AP, Reuters)January 11, 2016

He's just released his newest, and last album on his 69th birthday. Three days later, David Bowie died of cancer. Who was the man behind the costumes and the legend?

David Bowie, Copyright: Reuters/B. Rickerby
Image: Reuters/B. Rickerby

"David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family after a courageous 18 month battle with cancer," the musician's publicist wrote on his official Facebook page on Monday, January 11. Facebook fans responded with shock, disbelief and condolences. Bowie's representative, Steve Martin, asked for respect for the "family's privacy during their time of grief" and gave no further details.

Bowie's son, Duncan Jones, confirmed his father's death in a Tweet. Bowie is also survived by his daughter, Alexandria Jones, and his wife, supermodel Iman.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron also took to Twitter to pay tribute to the rock legend on Monday, praising Bowie's ability to reinvent himself.

Just three days earlier, on January 8, the English music legend turned 69 years old and released a new album, "Blackstar" - yet another act of self-reinvention.

A man of many faces

Bowie, whose real name was David Jones, had an androgynous appearance in his earlier days. He was known for frequently altering his looks and sound. It was in 1969 that he had his initial big hit with "Space Oddity."

He was also known by his alter-ego Ziggy Stardust, a bisexual alien rock star, which he took on during the glam rock era of the early 1970s. His own sexuality was always a matter of discussion, with Bowie coming out as "gay," "bisexual" and as a "closet heterosexual" at various times in his life.

In the late 70s, he spent three years living in Berlin (1976-79), where he collaborated with Brian Eno for the memorable song, "Heroes."

It was in the early 1980s that he experienced some of his greatest career successes, including the song "Let's Dance" and a big US tour. Over his career, he's sold an estimated 140 million records worldwide. Undoubtedly one of the most important figures in 20th-century pop music, Bowie was renowned for unending metamorphoses spanning his entire career.

Nevertheless, the performer, who was also a producer, arranger, artist, and actor, told the Associated Press in a 2002 interview that he'd "really only worked with the same subject matter" over the course of his career. "The trousers may change, but the actual words and subjects I've always chosen to write with are things to do with isolation, abandonment, fear and anxiety - all of the high points of one's life."

Bowie also confessed in the interview that he didn't feel like a natural performer. However, "What I'm most proud of is that I can't help but notice that I've affected the vocabulary of pop music," he added.

A futuristic last album

Bowie's freshly released album, which comes three years after "The Next Day," is now his last, and it marks - no surprise - a radical shift in his style. This can already be noticed with the cover: a simple black star on a white background. The name of the album is nowhere to be read; it is rather represented through a "★" symbol.

Album cover Blackstar
The album cover, simple in black and whiteImage: Smi Col (Sony Music)

In 2013, many critics felt "The Next Day," at the time Bowie's 24th studio album and the first album since "Reality" released in 2003, reflected his entire life's work.

"Blackstar" does not take a nostalgic look back, as was the case with the 2013 single "Where Are We Now," which pondered on Bowie's Berlin period. Instead, we hear futuristic music that doesn't bow to the laws of commercial pop music.

Jazz is at the heart of the new sound, paired with electronic elements, hip hop beats and numerous other components from the musical cosmos. The album features seven songs that don't necessarily follow the classic pattern of verse and chorus, and some are much longer than your typical pop song, too.

Rapper-inspired jazz has the last word

Launched in November, the new album's title track "Blackstar" is anything but easy listening. Unusual melodies and harmonies create a somber, almost mystic mood on an over 10-minute track. Halfway through, the nightmarish cycle is broken by a liberating intermezzo, only to return to the bleak beginning. He was already in the midst of his 18-month battle with cancer while producing the album.

A short film that shows demonic ritual ceremonies on some faraway planet accompanies the lead single, which actually had to be cut to size to fit the length allowed for single sales on iTunes.

Inspired by rapper Kendrick Lamar's jazzy album "To Pimp a Butterfly," Bowie wanted to avoid at all costs producing a rock album, producer Tony Visconti told "Rolling Stone" magazine. So he hired jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslin, who was to be a key influence on the new album's sound. Saxophonist was, incidentally, Bowie's first instrument, which he took up at the age of 13.

Who was David Bowie?

Prior to becoming ill with cancer, Bowie had suffered from other health problems. The wild rock star life, including excessive drug use, it seems, was taking its toll. He suffered a heart attack in 2004 and, following heart surgery, didn't release an album for the next decade.

But even during that time, David Bowie was never really gone: "David Bowie's name is enshrined in pop music history, and he's always present because young bands quote or refer to his music," pop music expert Christoph Jacke told DW prior to the star's death. "

Despite his constant presence, the question, "Who was David Bowie?" will continue to occupy fans and music lovers. The artist skillfully avoided the answer to that question for decades, says Jacke.

Though the creator of Ziggy Stardust, Major Tom and the Thin White Duke has once stated that these characters have fulfilled their goal and that they can now retire, David Bowie himself was an artificial figure that worked exceptionally well, says Jacke, adding that the performer no longer needed Ziggy Stardust or Major Tom, since he created David Bowie, a strong character which he could "hide behind."

David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, Copyright: Express/Getty Images
Bowie's alter ego Ziggy StardustImage: Getty Images/Express

Doing so, Bowie will forever be an icon of the music world. As for the definition of David Bowie's identity, it can only be expressed through a snapshot of a particular moment.