David Bowie’s legacy in five music videos

David Bowie’s legacy in five music videos
The best music videos from the visually striking and epic music career of David Bowie.

Today would have been David Bowie’s 74th birthday. It’s been exactly five years since the release of his last album Blackstar, an LP that came out just two days before Bowie’s death from a previously undisclosed cancer. The shock and sorrow of that day is still felt, as is the added gravity of that final album, still difficult to disassociate from its practically posthumous timing.

Bowie’s iconic stature with his fans hasn’t changed in five years, and his impact on culture won’t likely let up any time soon. But for the benefit of a generation of Bowie newbs coming up in the 2020’s, here are some audio-visual highlights of an epic groundbreaking career:

“Life on Mars”

Directed by Mick Rock (Top 5 David Bowie music videos)

A decade before the music video era, British photographer Mick Rock shot a few short films with Bowie in 1973, and while the clips for “John I’m Only Dancing” and “The Jean Genie” feature some cool moments and intercut live footage, the stark image of an overexposed Bowie — still donning the aesthetic of his Ziggy Stardust persona — does what music videos are supposed to do: enhance the song with dramatic energy and iconic imagery.

“Boys Keep Swinging”

Directed by David Mallet (Top 5 David Bowie music videos)

“Heroes” might be the more obvious follow-up to the video from “Life on Mars,” a late-’70s counterpart to the stark, simple drama of that video concept, but “Boys Keep Swinging” depicts the more playful side of Bowie’s peak period: overwrought dancing, multiple instances of drag (once in no less than a Thierry Mugler gown) and a catchy tune with questionable lyrics that will stick in your head against your will.

“Ashes to Ashes”

Directed by David Mallet (Top 5 David Bowie music videos)

Just as the music video era began to take hold, and the popularity of the Bowie-inspired new romantic scene swept the U.K., Bowie released what would be his last truly great album for many years (Scary Monsters) and this video featuring a short-lived tattered-Pierrot persona. “Ashes to Ashes” marks the first (but hardly the last) callback to an earlier phase of his career, “Major Tom” having been the lead character in his first hit single “Space Oddity.” (I’m not including “Let’s Dance” here because that video is nonsense.)

’80s Bonus: “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean”

Directed by Julien Temple

Though hardly the best period in Bowie’s music career (it was probably the worst), this short film directed by Julien Temple captures a rarely seen comedic side of his acting talent. The 15-minute preamble to the music video for “Blue Jean” (the best track on the otherwise pretty garbagey Tonight album) features Bowie playing two roles: a putz going through the incredibly cheesy motions of trying to impress a girl on a date and a tortured musician type that seems to be the basis for Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ performance as a Bowie stand-in in Velvet Goldmine. The split persona can be interpreted as a comment on Bowie’s shifting identities, and (in the context of 1986) a touch of a sad throwback to Bowie’s troubled past (when he was addicted to cocaine and alcohol but also making much better music).

“The Heart’s Filthy Lesson”

Directed by Sam Bayer (Top 5 David Bowie music videos)

In the midst of Britpop, which heralded a U.K. glam rock revival and the rise of other heavily Bowie-influenced bands, Bowie spent a good chunk of the ’90s gravitating in the other direction, toward goth/industrial aesthetics and drum & bass. “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” from Outside clearly falls into the former category (“Little Wonder” off the next album, Earthling, would exemplify the latter), and a co-headlining tour with Nine Inch Nails wouldn’t be far behind.

“Blackstar”

Directed by Johan Renck (Top 5 David Bowie music videos)

The epic first single from the album of the same name came with one of the most striking videos Bowie has ever made, one that visually calls back to previous videos “Space Oddity,” “Look Back in Anger” and “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” while creating plenty of new strange iconography that will stick with you whether you want it to or not. As a song and a video, “Blackstar” is as uplifting as it is eerie — okay, maybe it’s more eerie, but much less so than Bowie’s last video “Lazarus,” a deathbed narrative shot during the week Bowie was told his cancer was terminal, and released just three days before his death. That’s still a tough one. Watch “Blackstar” instead. ■

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