One of the most important aspects of David Bowie's work in The '70s was his creation of stage personas as vehicles for his songs via Alter-Ego Acting Type 3 (the persona as a different self of the performer). While he eventually put these behind him in favor of performing "as himself", knowledge of them and their tropes is important to understanding a significant chunk of his career. In addition, other songs and music videos have characters of their own that have proven trope-worthy, and/or are frequently mentioned in pop culture.
Bowie's first hit (though not his Breakthrough Hit, which would be 1972's "Starman") was "Space Oddity", a 1969 number that told the sad tale of ill-fated astronaut Major Tom. In 1980, the Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) song "Ashes to Ashes" would expand upon this story, not only by continuing it but suggesting that it was more complex than originally presented. The remix of 1. Outside's "Hallo Spaceboy" (1996) featuring the group Pet Shop Boys includes a bridge that mentions Major Tom once more. Finally, Major Tom possibly appears as a long-dead corpse in the music video for "Blackstar," from the 2016 album of the same name, wherein a cult springs up over the worship of his bejeweled skull.
Major Tom's story has proven well-known enough to be reinterpreted by other parties, as in Peter Schilling's 1983 song "Major Tom (Coming Home)" and, in a far more irreverent manner, The Venture Bros. Season One episode "Ghosts of the Sargasso". The good Major warrants a page at Wikipedia that runs down the many references to him in pop culture.
- Addled Addict: According to "Ashes to Ashes", he either became this or was one all along.
- Contemplate Our Navels: Major Tom does a little of this starting at the first appearance of "For here/Am I sitting in a tin can", and the resultant thoughts may or may not factor into what happens afterward.
- Distant Finale: In the music video for "Black Star" (which was off the last album Bowie ever made) we see the long-dead corpse of an astronaut being found on an alien world, which is worshiped by the natives.
- Food Pills: Ground Control advises the Major to "Take [his] protein pills" as part of his pre-launch preparation at the beginning.
- Offscreen Inertia: It's easy for the listener to assume that after the events of "Space Oddity", he's still floating around in space, with only death to expect/look forward to. His return in later songs suggests he may have survived the ordeal, however.
- Space Madness: If the listener decides Major Tom voluntarily cut off contact with Earth, this might be the reason why; alternatively, this is what he'll soon undergo now that he can't make contact with anyone else and is apparently stranded in space. Either way, "Planet Earth is blue/And there's nothing I can do"...
- From the album cover of Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)) and the video for "Ashes to Ashes" (1980)
"Space Oddity" is a dialogue between two parties — Ground Control and Major Tom — and "Ashes to Ashes" is also sung by two characters. But while Major Tom is back, this time the other singer is someone who "heard a rumor from Ground Control" about Tom's return. In the music video, a Concept Video with surreal imagery, the unnamed party is visualized as a mysterious Pierrot clown. While not as famous as Major Tom, Pierrot is another Bowie character occasionally invoked in pop culture, such as the TV series named for the song and set in 1980, Ashes to Ashes (2008). A life-sized puppet Pierrot is featured prominently in the 2013 video for "Love Is Lost".
- Continuity Nod: This is not the first time Bowie's work involved clown imagery — he studied and performed mime as part of Lindsay Kemp's troupe in The '60s. One of his early songs, "London Bye Ta-Ta", was rewritten as "Threepenny Pierrot" for their television production Pierrot in Turquoise. A Pierrot also appears in the painting on the back cover of the Self-Titled Album that was subsequently renamed Space Oddity.
- Costume Porn: His beautiful, shimmering suit.
- Monster Clown: He may well not be evil, but he is strange and unsettling. The name of the album doesn't help his case!
- From The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972) and the tour that followed (1972-73)
Bowie's breakout character — an androgynous, bisexual rock star (either from Mars or an Earthling Touched by Vorlons; Bowie flip-flopped on the plot of this Concept Album) who becomes a universally adored sensation in the final five years of Earth's existence. The adoration goes to his head by the time he dies at the hands of his own fans.
- Acquired Situational Narcissism: The song "Ziggy Stardust" itself, which is sung from the point of view of his Spiders from Mars bandmates, claims Ziggy grew egotistical once he became famous. (Two of Bowie's actual bandmates from this period, Trevor Bolder and Woody Woodmansey, claim this actually happened to him — that he spent less and less time offstage with them and other old acquaintances as his star rose.)
- Actor IS the Title Character: The album was promoted with an ad proclaiming "David Bowie is Ziggy Stardust"; at the bottom, in smaller type, it read "Ziggy Stardust is David Bowie". (According to Lou Reed, Bowie apparently did start to think he was Ziggy after a few drinks.)
- Costume Porn: Bowie usually had several costume changes at each concert during this period, which became more elaborate as his star rose.
- Discount Lesbians: If one goes with the interpretation that Ziggy is Touched by Vorlons, then he's a discount bisexual.
- Dude Looks Like a Lady: "Lady Stardust" is effectively about an early Ziggy gig. Due to his long hair and makeup, he's initially laughed at for being this, but he charms everyone of both genders by the end of the show.
- '80s Hair: In The '70s. Ziggy has a feathered red mullet.
- Face of the Band: Invoked in-story. According to the song "Ziggy Stardust", he became "the special man" of the Spiders from Mars, with his once-equal bandmates becoming jealous and resentful of him as a result. (Lyrics from this song provide the trope's header quote.)
- Fluffy Fashion Feathers: Ziggy Stardust occasionally donned a feather boa.
- Impractically Fancy Outfit: He had a few; for example, one of them had long strings of heavy glass beads cascading from its sleeves.
- Messianic Archetype: Part of his problem is that he comes to believe the hype about being this.
- No Brows: Bowie shaved off his eyebrows one grumpy, drunken night in '72 and liked the result so much that he didn't grow them back until Young Americans arrived in '75.
- The Rock Star: Raised to mythic and messianic status.
- Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll: Ziggy is a hedonistic version, crossing paths with Acquired Situational Narcissism.
- Shout-Out: Stardust refers to the eccentric musician known as The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, who was a Mercury Records labelmate of Bowie's at the turn of The '70s. Bowie eventually covered one of his songs, "I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship", on his 2002 album Heathen.
- Touched by Vorlons: Maybe.
- From Aladdin Sane (1973)
Bowie's follow-up to Ziggy Stardust was a Spiritual Successor. Owing to Bowie's concern that the character of Ziggy was overwhelming him, Aladdin Sane is a Concept Album focusing on the fall of a faux-Ziggy as he travels through America, reflecting the fact that Bowie wrote the bulk of the songs during a tour of the U.S. The album was released prior to Bowie returning to the U.K. for the final leg of touring as Ziggy.
- Expy: Of Ziggy Stardust. The look is identical save for (on the album cover and inner sleeve) a dramatic make-up lightning bolt that's become an Iconic Outfit for Bowie.
- Punny Name: On the phrase "A lad insane."
- From Diamond Dogs (1974)
A character mentioned in the title track of Diamond Dogs as "a real cool cat/[who] lives on top of Manhattan Chase" in an After the End Dystopia, his name is generally used to describe the persona Bowie assumed for the followup tour, which was set in the album's "Hunger City". Bowie doesn't seem to have regarded it as a true persona, however.
- Eyepatch of Power: Some Bowie fans visualize Jack as wearing the outfit Bowie wore on an appearance on a Dutch music show, where he wore a patch to cover a nasty case of pinkeye. (Never mind that he didn't wear anything remotely similar◊ to that getup on the actual Diamond Dogs tour...)
The Thin White Duke
- From Station to Station and the subsequent Isolar tour (1976)
After Bowie played the Alien Among Us Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth, he took the look and stoic nature of Newton and merged it with Fascist, Nazi, and occult ideologies to create the darkest of his stage personas: a heartless, decadent, cocaine-addicted European who is struggling to understand concepts such as love and God. So much of this character reflected Bowie's real problems (particularly with drugs) at the time that as he struggled to address them afterward, he realized he could no longer practice Alter-Ego Acting as a musician. Ironically, given the character's dark nature, "The Thin White Duke" is often used as a simple nickname for Bowie now; more appropriately, this look is the primary reference for how Bowie is portrayed in The Venture Bros.. In 2013, a life-sized puppet version of the Duke appeared in Bowie's Surreal Music Video "Love Is Lost".
- Aristocrats Are Evil: To quote the opening lines of "Station to Station", "The return of The Thin White Duke/Throwing darts in lovers' eyes..."
- Badass Baritone: It was around this time that Bowie started to rely more on his lower vocal registers.
- Bishōnen Line: Partially, the Duke is the handsome perversion of Bowie's Young Americans act, who did kind of an Affectionate Parody of soul and funk music, calling it Plastic Soul. The Duke's version of funk is plastic soul filtered by clouds of cocaine.
- Cloudcuckoolander: A decidedly dark example, Bowie's lyrics for the Duke are infused with references to occultism, fascism and religion, TVC15 is a bizarre story about a TV that eats girlfriends.
- Creepy Doll: The Duke's final appearance is in Bowie's music video for Love Is Lost.... as a life-sized wooden doll. The Duke can still move and speak in this form, at one point even taking a drag from his smokes.
- Darker and Edgier: Previous personas may or may not have been living in crapsack worlds, but they were usually good-natured and/or lost souls as opposed to the Duke, whom Bowie once described as "a very nasty character indeed."
- Evil Redhead: Notable as the last of Bowie's red-haired characters.
- Expy: For Thomas Jerome Newton; the photo on the cover of the album is taken from the movie. Although Newton actually has more in common with Ziggy, being an essentially good-hearted extraterrestrial who fell victim to a substance problem!
- Hollywood Thin / Lean and Mean: How thin is the Thin White Duke? Try 90-95 pounds on average, thanks to Bowie's extremely limited diet and drug use at the time! Supposedly, the Duke lived on nothing but red peppers, cocaine, milk, and cigarettes.
- Limited Wardrobe: Black trousers, white shirt, black waistcoat, and a packet of Gitanes cigarettes in the pocket of the waistcoat.
- Lost in Character: The reason why he stopped inventing personas.
- Minimalism: The Isolar tour's visual approach was based on this. Ziggy Stardust had lavish outfits and Halloween Jack (Diamond Dogs) had Scenery Porn, but the Duke not only had a Limited Wardrobe, his concerts averted Spectacle with only stark white lights used to illuminate him and his band.
- Must Have Nicotine: He doesn't have those cigs in his pocket for nothing.
- Sharp-Dressed Man: First Bowie "look" (not counting film work) primarily defined by suits. Rather than a jacket, however, he wore a Waistcoat of Style.
- Those Wacky Nazis: Complete with fascist offstage comments and ambiguous Hitler salutes.
- Villainous Cheekbones: Bowie was so thin at the time that his angular cheeks were even more so here.
- Waistcoat of Style: A black one.
- Weight Woe: Bowie was seriously anorectic as the Duke and lived off red pepper, milk, and cocaine. He is reported to have weighed as little as eighty or ninety pounds during this time.
- From 1. Outside (1995)
- The Exotic Detective: It's his job to not only investigate grisly "art-crimes" to find out who done 'em, but also determine whether they actually qualify as works of art or not. ("Art's a farmyard. It's my job to pick thru the manure heap looking for peppercorns.") He has aspects of the Hardboiled Detective he wears a trenchcoat and fedora, and has a world-weary, growling voice in his spoken-word segues but is far more erudite and intellectual.
Bowie's entry into the long-form Concept Video sweepstakes that followed on from Michael Jackson's Thriller was 1984's Jazzin' for Blue Jean, a 20-minute effort that played in U.K. cinemas before The Company of Wolves and on TV and home video elsewhere. The story is a simple farce. Working-class guy Vic, trying to impress the girl of his dreams (referred to as "Dream" in the end credits, as there's No Name Given otherwise), tells a Celebrity Lie to her — namely that he knows the rock star Screamin' Lord Byron, who's about to be making a one-night-only appearance at a London club. Now he has to introduce her to him. The twist in the telling is that Bowie plays both men.
- Amusing Injuries: He smacks into a wall and slides down a ladder (this will leave him wearing a plaster on his nose for the rest of the film), is shoved away by Screamin' Lord Byron's handlers and gets his hand slammed in a chain link fence door, is shoved to the ground by the bouncer at the club door, and crashes through the ceiling of Mr. Screamin's dressing room. Aside from needing the plaster, he brushes all this off immediately.
- Bad Liar: Besides his Celebrity Lie, he makes up tons of phony claims in his attempts to get into the club. Those who don't see through them immediately figure things out soon enough. Heck, the door bouncer seems amused by his complete inability to bluff his way inside. The only lie that works for him is that first one. Or so he thinks. Dream tricked him into thinking she needed to be introduced to her former lover!
- Celebrity Lie: The one he tells gets the plot rolling.
- Cute Clumsy Girl: A Rare Male Example — his Establishing Character Moment leaves him with a bandage on his nose for the remainder of the story, and he manages to lose control of his own hair dryer while getting ready for his date.
- Establishing Character Moment: When he initially sees Dream, he's atop a ladder and finishing the job of posting an ad for Screamin' Lord Byron's show on a building. To spare her and her friend from having to walk under his ladder, he manages, by hooking his brush to a ledge, to lean it back far enough that they can walk past it. Unfortunately, he's distracted by her thanking him and lets the ladder smack back against the building; he smacks his nose against it before sliding all the way down to the sidewalk. Given how easily he shrugs this off to follow her into a bar, he must be taking his lumps on a constant basis...
- Exploding Calendar: It's suggested that he accidentally turned his page-a-day calendar into one with his hair dryer.
- Fun T-Shirt: He has a (then-popular in Real Life) "Frankie Says Relax" one, but decides not to wear it on the date because "I'm not advertising Frankie [Goes to Hollywood] until they tell us who he is."
- Give Geeks a Chance: In the end, averted — against Bowie's wishes.
- Loser Protagonist: He's a clumsy, dateless, working-class bloke with limited funds, and he is no whiz at conversation.
- Lovable Nerd: Of a sort; he's pretty dorky but no great intellect. This aside, given that Mr. Screamin' is pretty heavily implied to be a jerk and it turns out Dream already knows Screamin' and is just cruelly stringing Vic along, it's not incredibly hard for Vic to win the audience's sympathy.
- Love at First Sight: With Dream.
- Not on the List: When he claims to be several different people on the guest list, they all arrive in turn to be waved through, so the attendant hides the list from him and his ploy falls apart.
- Pretty Fly for a White Guy: His attempts to make small talk with the club's black bouncer smack of this. He thinks Malcolm X is a band (and claims he caught their tour) and may be confusing Jesse Jackson with Michael Jackson.
- Sharp-Dressed Man: Attempts to be this on his date with Dream, using a suit (and shoes) borrowed from his roommate, who is this.
- Straw Loser: Played with; he's this when set against everyone else, but it turns out that Mr. Screamin' isn't as awesome as he appears in public and Dream was cruelly stringing him along; of the two men, he's at least a slightly better one. No wonder that Bowie thinks Dream should repent and go back to Vic rather than the "too obvious" ending of her staying with Mr. Screamin'.
- That Makes Me Feel Angry: When Dream walks off with Mr. Screamin' and leaves Vic alone at the table, Vic mutters 'I'm speechless...'
Screamin' Lord Byron
- Adam Westing: This character is a goof on Bowie's 1970s stage personas and excesses.
- "Arabian Nights" Days: The basis for his stage costume and makeup.
- The Beautiful Elite: Despite his excesses, it is clear he's an example of this, which stands in sharp contrast to Vic's plain, working-class nature.
- British Rock Star: "Mr. Screamin'" is one of the classier examples of this trope.
- Costume Porn: Part and parcel of his stage act.
- Noodle Incident: "Do you remember Margaret and her yak?" he asks Dream, a former flame of his, at the end. Actually, the animal in question was a llama.
- Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll: Implied to be living this lifestyle, hedonistically. His handlers literally carry him around and he's hooked up to a portable oxygen tank when he's first carried into the backstage area of the club.
- Sharp-Dressed Man: His offstage look.
- Shout-Out: The name is probably a portmanteau of Lord Byron and 1960s rock musician Screaming Lord Sutch, whose horror pastiche stage act was one of the first of its kind in rock. Visually, Mr. Screamin's stage appearance is inspired by Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.
- Uncanny Valley Makeup: On stage, he wears full-face makeup with a metallic sheen and painted on shadows. Beneath the stage lights, particularly in the close-up that opens the song portion of the short, this gives his face a curious "living painting" quality.