Concordia offers a special topics course on the art and music of David Bowie
One of the most prolific and innovative artists of the last century, David Bowie left the world in shock with his death in 2016. His work, and his status of pop culture icon, had wide-ranging influence in the field of music, art and society.
Since he approached his creation as a “Total Artwork,” studying Bowie means studying music, painting, dance, theatre, visual arts, costume design, literature, poetry and philosophy.
The Art and Music of David Bowie (MHIS 398A), the special topics course offered this fall by the Department of Music, is a unique occasion to do a transdisciplinary exploration of his post-modernity, together with some in-depth musical analysis.
As a great Bowie fan myself, I was excited to take on this challenge. And the response was terrific, bringing together students from all over the Faculty of Fine Arts and beyond.
Here are 10 iconic and personal favourite Bowie songs:
1. “All The Madmen” (1970)
From The Man Who Sold The World, this is a beautiful song dedicated to Bowie’s half-brother, unfortunately suffering from mental health issues. “I’d rather stay here with all the madmen than perish with the sad men roaming free,” sings Bowie with lyricism, over a mixture of psychedelic and progressive rock typical of his early efforts.
2. “Life on Mars?” (1971)
Leaving psychedelia behind and embracing the immediacy of glam rock on Hunky Dory, Bowie reconnects with his early love of cabaret in this touching ballad. It became one of his classic masterpieces.
3. “Starman” (1972)
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was the album that made Bowie into an international superstar. He performed this song at Top of the Pops in front of 15 million BBC viewers. After that he became an overnight icon for the young British generation, with the red hair, shiny makeup and glittery jumpsuit of his extraterrestrial rock star alter ego.
4. “Station to Station” (1976)
Having left Ziggy Stardust and the glam rock behind in England, Bowie immersed himself in the funk and soul of America. He also discovered the avant-garde experiments of German krautrock groups such as Kraftwerk and Neu! Taking on a new identity as the Thin White Duke, the singer offers us this 10-minute song from the album of the same name. It combines cold mechanical loops with the passion of soul.
5. “Warszawa” (1977)
Fleeing the decadent life of Los Angeles, Bowie finds refuge in the German capital, where he records his famous Berlin Trilogy. It’s a suite of albums that blurs the line between rock and avant-garde music. Assisted by the unique talent of the electronic composer Brian Eno, he records on Low some ambient and mesmerizing instrumental tracks, among which Warszawa is one of the most iconic. It even inspires Philip Glass to compose an entire symphony!
6. “Boys Keep Swinging” (1979)
If the Berlin Trilogy pioneered electronic experimentations, it also featured some catchy pop pieces. Bowie has forever played with gender-bending, singing about trans characters and declaring himself bisexual. “Boys Keep Swinging,” from Lodger, is an acute critique of systemic discrimination against women. As a result, the song was censored in the United States, and the video clip featuring Bowie wearing makeup and dressing as a woman was banned.
7. “Ashes to Ashes” (1980)
From Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), this melancholic hit song allows Bowie to revisit his career back to Major Tom from “Space Oddity,” as a farewell to his early years.
8. “Magic Dance” (1986)
David Bowie’s output in the 1980s was a creative low point in his career, but he still managed to conquer the hearts of a generation with his role of the Goblin King in Jim Henson’s movie Labyrinth. This song might be cheesy, but it’s a guilty pleasure.
9. “Outside” (1995)
After some unfortunate pop adventures in the 1980s and early 1990s, most people had written Bowie off. Defying expectations, the singer returned with an experimental concept album, fusing grunge, alternative rock and free jazz, in what remains one of his most peculiar offerings. Here is the title track.
10. “Blackstar” (2016)
A performance artist until the very end, Bowie staged his death by releasing this ultimate self-referential album two days before passing away. Recorded in secret with a jazz band, the album is a masterpiece, led by the hauntingly beautiful title track.