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David Bowie on why he was proud to be an ‘influencer’

Now the term ‘influencer’ is riddled with all the connotations of social media, but when David Bowie was trying to burst through onto the scene, pop culture had barely been around long enough for people to even grasp the notion. However, Bowie was always someone with an eye for trends and turfing up wisdom where possible and when his literary hero William S. Burroughs said, “Artists to my mind are the real architects of change, and not the political legislators who implement change after the fact,” a proverbial light bulb lit up somewhere near his cranium. 

In the beginning, Bowie wanted more than anything to be an architect of change in some way and everything else was secondary. He merely wanted to be an influential figure. He once stated: “I suppose for me as an artist it wasn’t always just about expressing my work; I really wanted, more than anything else, to contribute in some way to the culture I was living in.” Whether through music, his understandably short-lived multimedia mime act or some other means, Bowie was more concerned with “becoming” rather than “being”.

It was evident then, just as it is in retrospect that music was his true skill. The reality, however, took a while to dawn on the man who actively spent his time avoiding it. “I never really felt like a rock singer or a rock star or whatever,” Bowie mused in 2014. “Now I realise that from 1972 through to about 1976, I was the ultimate rock star. I couldn’t have been more rock star.”

The reason that this was somehow amiss to Bowie is not purely limited to the fact that he was shovelling copious substances, but rather that he was relishing in the zeitgeist of his age and trying to wrestle it in new directions. Had he been born 50 years earlier, then he may well have picked up a brush and spawned dadaism and influenced the world from a canvas. 

This, in truth, aside from his magical musical talents, is what made him a true icon. He wasn’t just making magnificent music, but he was reinventing his own world, and changing ours in the process, whether that be by dabbling in the stratosphere and welcoming us into his wonderful imaginative oeuvre or through his daring statements—they are all one and the same. Unlike modern influencers, he was a vehicle for progressive change and not someone merely clamouring aboard. 

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In 2003, he reflected on this very notion and opined: “However arrogant and ambitious I think we were in my generation, I think the idea was that if you do something really good, you’ll become famous. The emphasis on fame itself is something new.” Adding: “Now, it’s to be famous you do what it takes, which is not the same thing at all. And it will leave many new artists with this empty feeling.”

Behind Bowie influence was pure intent. With it, he has shaped the culture of today. As for the nature of influence itself, “I think what happens is you look at somebody and maybe something you had as a small seed in your own mind, you see that somebody has extended that or gone quite a long way with it,” he said. “You think yeah that person is doing what I really like to do… so that kind of influence I’m proud, if I have been influential on people in that way,” he humbly posits, “that’s really good.”

With this, he has proven to be one of the most influential artists in history and it just so happened that the zeitgeist he seized was when guitars and freaks were coming to the fore. To those who would be influenced to follow in his footsteps, he has this to share: “Music has been both my doorway of perception and the house that I live in. I only hope that it embraces you with the same lusty life force that it graciously offered me.”