I woke up this morning to the news that David Bowie has died. I know we’re about business here and we’ll get to it, but Bowie was an artist I loved and I’d be remiss if I didn’t use his passing as a starting point today.
I first saw him on Valentine’s Day, 1973. From the opening notes of the introduction (Beethoven’s Ode To Joy) until he collapsed on stage after an hour and a half of intense rock, it was unlike any show I had seen to that point. What was striking, besides the music, was Bowie himself: flaming red hair and so androgynous. Spiders From Mars was an apt description, and Ziggy Stardust was mind-altering in terms of how I thought about rock stars. I think I spent a fair portion of my senior year in high school on the lawn outside of the music room listening to “Alladin Sane” with friends.
Over the next few years, I bought every Bowie album, each one different, often with completely different musicians. I first heard Stevie Ray Vaughan on a Bowie album (1983’s Let’s Dance) but Bowie was always a musician with whom other musicians wanted to collaborate – the list is way too long for this space. Let’s just stipulate that anyone who can sing with artists ranging from Bing Crosby to John Lennon to Queen is the personification of versatile.
Another interesting thing about Bowie was how he became different characters over the course of his career. Ziggy Stardust became a soul singer who became the Thin White Duke. Rock became soul which became dance which became electronic which morphed back into rock. He also did many things well – actor, songwriter, performer.
Yes, there is a business point. Bowie’s career was, as Wikipedia says, one of reinvention, musical innovation and visual presentation. Those are three keys that should be a focus for any brand: innovation, reinvention, and presentation. You never quite knew what you’d be getting with the release of a new Bowie record but you always knew it would be good, if not great. We should always be seeking to push ourselves while keeping the core tenets of our brands true. People need to be able to count on and trust a brand, and Bowie showed us that brands need not stop innovating, growing, and surprising to retain that trust. That innovation and surprise continued right up until the end with the release of his final album. Universally acclaimed, it is very different musically. Maybe because he knew it was to be “a parting gift” to his fans.
“Heroes” is probably my favorite Bowie song. It came out my senior year in college (a school that Bowie’s wife Angela got kicked out of, by the way), and I’ve found it to be inspiring ever since. Great products can do that. Have a listen and take a moment to miss what Bowie, one of my musical heroes, has taught us.