The Prettiest Star: David Bowie's Defining Decades

David Bowie
Photo Credit
Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images; Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns; Michael Putland/Getty Images

Jan. 8, 2022 would be David Bowie's 75th birthday, but it's sadly kind of hard to imagine what he'd be doing if he were still with us - if only because his career arc was kind of perfect as it was. The six years since he left this planet have been spent immersed in the work he left us, whether in box sets or pop-up shops. But take away all the artifice and you still have a career like few others: stretching and resetting the boundaries and trappings of "rock stardom" at will, refusing to do the same thing twice and leaving millions of people with incredible albums and songs in the process.

READ MORE: David Bowie's Former Musicians Plan Second Tribute Concert

In honor of David's incredible life and career, we present to you an incredible moment from the seven decades in which he released music. Any of these moments would power one life of work; he used these to launch several lifetimes' worth.

The '60s: Ground Control to Major Tom

The man born David Jones spent much of the '60s toiling away in teenage obscurity, his musical ambitions being thwarted at nearly every turn. Nine singles failed to chart, and his debut album from 1967 didn't fare much better. Adrift in an age when his countrymen changed rock and roll for good, from The Beatles to The Rolling Stones and The Who, David stopped emulating his peers' rock/blues mind-melds and studied theatre and folk, searching for something different. He finally hit pay dirt with his tenth single, the acoustic-driven "Space Oddity." Though its Top 5 chart placement in the U.K. had something to do with the world's fervor over man landing on the moon, this tale of heavenward isolation at the height of the free-love era would resonate far beyond its trendy times.

READ MORE: David Bowie: The Real Winner of the Space Race

The '70s: Waiting in the Sky

Like so many British rockers, David Bowie covered enough ground in the '70s to tide over three or four careers. His androgynous folk style soon gave way to glam rock, a fusion of arena-sized tunes and eye-popping theatricality. Bowie's Ziggy Stardust character burned bright before he dramatically retired the character (and his backing band) on stage in 1973. From there, he'd flirt with R&B and funk - a white ex-glam rocker's take he dubbed "plastic soul" - and charmed a different type of audience with songs like "Young Americans" (featuring early vocal arrangements by Luther Vandross) and "Fame" (co-written by John Lennon). By the end of the year, the former space oddity was truly in orbit, recovering from drug addictions that threatened to sideline his career and crafting a trilogy of minimalist, noisy pop albums in Berlin.

But the moment that one can't help but come back to is when the fuse was lit on Ziggy-mania: Bowie's 1972 appearance on Top of the Pops. A generation of listeners stood up straight when the redheaded, velvet-jumpsuited singer hugged guitarist Mick Ronson before singing a confident string of verses culminating with that legendary point down the camera lens. Many have noted this moment was when Bowie truly became a star: nearly 50 years later, it's hard to argue this.

READ MORE: February 1972: England Greets Ziggy Stardust

The '80s: Tremble Like a Flower

Once again, it would be a moment early in the decade to turn things around for Bowie - but this one was like no other. Always popular to a degree outside of Europe, Bowie signed a new record deal in 1983 with the intent of becoming a full-on pop star - a decision that timed with the expansion of a daring American station called MTV. Those opening bursts of "Let's Dance," featuring the guitar and production of CHIC mastermind Nile Rodgers, were tailor made to grab your ears from any radio - and it became Bowie's biggest hit, the only of his solo singles to top the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.

Let's Dance spawned three Top 10 hits and turned the bleached-blonde Bowie into a commercial juggernaut in a way perhaps he could not expect. It's little surprise he found himself retreating from that perch by the end of the decade, challenging fans by joining the noisy Tin Machine collective and only briefly pausing to honor any sort of "status" with 1989's Grammy-winning Sound + Vision box set. But that was the way, wasn't it? Burn bright and retreat, keep them wanting more.

READ MORE: May 1983: David Bowie Hits No. 1 with "Let's Dance"

The '90s: Grey Space in the Middle

The recent Brilliant Adventure box set showcases a restless and experimental Bowie in the '90s, unsatisfied with repeating himself even as he occasionally looked back on what he'd done. His masterstroke in this decade may have been a canny prediction of where music, art and commerce were headed, and in 1998, he took the reins in a way no other contemporary other than Prince really tried: he formed his own Internet service provider. That's right: where there was AOL or Netscape or a host of other ways to log onto the Web, Bowie launched BowieNet, which gave users access to his own material (early downloads and streaming features, live chats with the singer) as well as interesting extras like personalized e-mail addresses and free space to make your own websites.

"The piece of work is not finished until the audience comes to it and adds their own interpretation, and what the piece of art is about is the grey space in the middle," Bowie confidently told the BBC, perhaps summing up not only his own career but the entirety of artistic interpretation in the Internet era. "That grey space in the middle is what the 21st century is going to be all about.”

The '00s: Look Back in Anger

Bowie kicked off the millennium with a career-spanning set at Glastonbury, which led to the long-shelved Toy, a revisiting of his earliest material. But he spent most of the rest of the decade an enigma. He only released two albums and would play his final concert in 2006. He'd appear sporadically - a guest vocal here, a festival curation there - then disappear almost as soon as your eyes focused on his presence. With that spirit in mind, let's flash back to his performance at the Fashion Rocks fundraiser in 2005. We didn't know it at the time, but it was his last televised performance - yet the life he brings to "Life on Mars?" and Arcade Fire's "Wake Up" (with the band in tow, naturally) further establishes his immortality.

The '10s: I Can't Give Everything Away

He shocked everyone with 2013's The Next Day, his first album in a decade, but it was 2016's Blackstar that truly took the world by storm. Fans and critics turned over the album's seven songs, trying to divine the messages of mortality it seemed Bowie was trying to convey. And then, two days after the album was released, at 69 years of age, an unannounced cancer diagnosis made it clear: he was saying goodbye. But if the above is any indication, it's never really goodbye, is it?

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