David Bowie passed away last night on January 10, 2016 due to liver cancer that he’d kept secret. He did not want it to overshadow his recent album’s release, Blackstar. Let’s take a brief moment to look at his contributions to sci-fi and realize he did a lot to make these stereotypically-viewed nerdy interests appear to be cool. An amazingly talented musician and actor, Bowie left us with a lot to remember him by and will not be forgetten anytime soon.
It’s worth noting that Bowie’s first hit single was 1969’s “Space Oddity” (his 1972 version is the popular hit) which was about space travel and our fears of exploring the cosmos. The song’s main character, Major Tom, and its slow instrumental build-up are clear references to the seminal sci-fi movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. And his final album, Blackstar, not only contains sci-fi ideas but in fact had lyrics throughout that foretold Bowie’s own death, which has been confirmed as completely intentional. His exploration of similar ideas at the beginning and end of his career, with about 40 years of experience between them, make for a fascinating study. And his surreal 10-minute music video for the single Blackstar has already been something we mentioned on the site as worth watching.
Bowie himself – lanky, two differently colored eyes, an interest in sci-fi and music and theater, of indeterminate sexuality – should have been a nerd that was constantly harassed by any normal metric. Instead he took who he was and became a super-popular rock idol. And he created personas for his various iterations of music: Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke stand out as distinctly sci-fi influenced characters. Stardust was an especially strange creation – glam rock makeup and hair, but completely androgynous, and the album that came out along with it, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, tells a story of Ziggy Stardust as a rock messenger for extraterrestrial beings. His albums, tours and songs could each warrant an in-depth analysis and make for a fascinating article. Far too many amazing creations to summarize in this article, but we can take some solace in that incredible library of work that he has left us with.
While his appearances in cinema were sporadic, his contributions had no less impact. Bowie had a background studying mime and avant garde, and put that and his unique look to powerful use as Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien from a dying planet, in 1976’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. Other key roles in sci-fi movies included a vampire in The Hunger, Jareth the Goblin King in Labyrinth, FBI agent Phillip Jeffries in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Nikola Tesla in The Prestige.
David Bowie embraced who he was and his interests and showed zero shame. He helped many people feel like they weren’t alone, whether championing gay rights, standing up for black musicians on MTV or uniting East and West Berlin in a 1987 performance of Heroes, Bowie acknowledged our universal fears and united us, demystifying the concept of any group being “the other.” As his lyrics in the final track on the Ziggy Stardust album, Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide, state: “You’re not alone.” And we’re not. Actor and comedian Simon Pegg said: “If you’re sad today, just remember the world is over 4 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.”
A partial list of sci-fi songs by David Bowie, for those interested in exploring further:
- Space Oddity
- Life on Mars?
- Diamond Dogs
- Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)
- Hallo Spaceboy
- New Killer Star