By Kelly Leonard – Executive Director, Insights and Applied Improvisation
I’d spent the last week pouring over David Bowie’s new album, Blackstar. Any new release by Bowie is cause for serious attention, in my book. Even when the work was not superb or consistent, it was always interesting. That’s mostly because Bowie was a true original.
With the surprising and sad news that David Bowie has passed away, my Facebook feed was flooded with memories, tributes and declarations by friends for whom Bowie was a standard bearer. In thinking on why this particular artist had such an impact, I first considered the level of authenticity in his work. Then I reconsidered: not only had he performed under an assumed name, David Bowie created a strikingly vivid array of characters that he donned as a professional persona – from the Thin White Duke to Ziggy Stardust. No, it wasn’t authenticity that drew us to Bowie, it was his originality.
The Rolling Stones are authentic. They play stage characters that are close to themselves. They understand their brand and they stick to it. That’s why we keep paying out hundreds of dollars to see the same music performed the same way by, essentially, the same people decade after decade. But the Stones aren’t original. They haven’t produced an album of any original worth in over 30 years.
David Bowie was an original.
So what is it about originality and why do we hold it in such high regard?
First, sustained originality requires re-invention. David Bowie was a master of re-invention. Musically, he allowed himself to travel across genres – from the sweet sounds of American soul music to the electronic and ambient work that dominated his Berlin period to his rise back up the pop charts in the 1980’s with Let’s Dance. Like his music, Bowie crafted a variety of stage persona’s that helped tell the story of his music – boldly assuming fierce identities that were sometimes miles away from his previous alter ego.
Originality also requires an openness to influence. It thrives in collaboration. This might strike some as odd – thinking that original artists are solely self-defining. It’s the opposite, in fact. Original artists are open vessels. They seek new ideas and dig into old patterns; they foster an ever expanding crowd of collaborators. T.S. Elliot is quoted as saying, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” Bowie’s work teems with influence, but it’s his ability to craft that incredible variety of sound and word into spectacular songs that has set him apart through so many decades of changing musical tastes.
Finally, originality requires failure and an individual’s resilience to not allow that failure to squash future experimentation. Bowie’s career had a ton of failure. Although his 1984 album “Tonight” sold well, for most Bowie fans it’s a commercial sell out. Conversely, his work with Tin Machine didn’t land with a wide variety of audiences, although I know a number of 40 somethings who swear by that brief spin off band. David Bowie appeared in bad movies (Absolute Beginners) and good movies (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence); he had wonderful duets (Bing Crosby) and less than wonderful duets (Mick Jagger). But most of all, this original artist had durability. He managed to create meaningful, strikingly diverse content over five decades. While so many of his contemporaries were and are content with recycling greatest hits packages, David Bowie was never content to rest on his laurels.
Reinvention, collaboration and the freedom to fail. You’d think David Bowie was an improviser – perhaps he was.