Although Bowie's plan to record a series of sequels to 1. Outside fell through the cracks, that didn't mean the English rock chameleon was down for the count. Rather, he took the style he had built up on that album and reconfigured it for the second half of The '90s. Born from the vestiges of an aborted project to modernize and re-record a number of his old hits with a few new pieces thrown innote , Earthling continues the industrial influences (in particular Nine Inch Nails) from its predecessor but orients them in a more commercially accessible, danceable direction (though not without its own share of ambient leanings here and there), essentially being "David Bowie meets Drum and Bass".
The end result was an album met with a noticeably more divisive reception than 1. Outside upon release, with fans and critics accusing Bowie of playing catch-up with the cultural zeitgeist rather than leading it, thanks to Earthling coming out at a time when drum & bass was just starting to fade from popularity; comments along the lines of "granddad at the disco" were particularly common in light of Bowie having turned 50 the month before the album's release. However, the album was still a commercial success, peaking at No. 6 on the UK Albums chart, and the "era" for this album would mark Bowie at his most publicly prolific since his Let's Dance-Never Let Me Down days. Earthling would also become Vindicated by History decades down the road; by the time Bowie died in 2016, it gained a reputation as an underrated classic in his back-catalog.
Nine Inch Nails' then-only member, Trent Reznor himself, would later remix one of Earthling's singles, "I'm Afraid of Americans", and star in its music video. Other singles include "Little Wonder", "Dead Man Walking" and "Seven Years In Tibet". "Telling Lies" was notably the first work by a major popular music artist to be released over the internet, being officially available for download in three different versions, released on September 11, September 18, and September 25, 1996. The campaign was launched by a promotional activity on an online chat in which he and two impersonators tasked fans with identifying the real deal through an inversion of Two Truths and a Lie, in which the real Bowie would tell factoids about himself and the impersonators would tell equally-convincing fibs before asking the chat to vote on which Bowie they thought was the real one. The real Bowie came in third. The three versions wouldn't be available physically until the CD single and 12" single releases on November 4, both of which would offer the full lot of them on one package; until then, the digital versions were collectively downloaded by over 300,000 people, which in 1996 was beyond impressive.
- "Little Wonder" (6:02)
- "Looking for Satellites" (5:21)
- "Battle for Britain (The Letter)" (4:48)
- "Seven Years in Tibet" (6:22)
- "Dead Man Walking" (6:50)
- "Telling Lies" (4:49)
- "The Last Thing You Should Do" (4:57)
- "I'm Afraid of Americans" (5:00)
- "Law (Earthlings on Fire)" (4:48)
"And I'm gone, like I'm troping on angels"
- Alternative Dance: Bowie's big foray into the genre, in the form of drum & bass mixed with industrial rock and ambient music. He had previously played around with it on Black Tie White Noise and 1. Outside, but here he dived into it full force.
- Animal Eyes, Hellish Pupils, Supernatural Gold Eyes: All apply to Bowie in the latter half of the "Little Wonder" video◊.
- Continuity Nod: The "Little Wonder" video incorporates a Ziggy Stardust lookalike into its action, while in a more subtle example the young fellow in the Union Jack coat looks suspiciously like Bowie did when he first started recording in the mid-1960s.
- Costume Porn: The Alexander McQueen-designed frock coats hail from this era.
- Eagleland: "I'm Afraid of Americans" is Type 2
- Epic Rocking: "Dead Man Walking", "Little Wonder", "Seven Years In Tibet".
- Eyepatch of Power: Bowie at the start of the "Little Wonder" video, a possible nod to his "Rebel Rebel" performance on the Dutch version of Top of the Pops back in 1974.
- Face on the Cover: A notable subversion— Bowie is present on the cover, but is standing with his back to the camera.
- Gratuitous Panning: The outro of "Little Wonder" does this.
- Iconic Outfit: The Union Jack coat on the cover could be considered the costume most commonly associated with 90s-era Bowie.
- Lighter and Softer: Is this compared to 1. Outside— but not by much.
- List Song: "Looking for Satellites" starts off like this.
- Loudness War: Earthling is the first Bowie album to suffer from this trope, coming in at just DR7; later Bowie albums would continue to be compressed, with only 'hours...' surpassing this album in dynamics (even then, it only marginally exceeds it, at just DR8).
- Madness Mantra: "God is an American, God is an American, God is an American..."
- Major Injury Underreaction: Well in this case, Major Dying Underreaction. From "Law (Earthlings on Fire)"In a house a man drops deadAs he hits the floor he sighs, "What a morning"
- Mythology Gag: The artwork for the "Little Wonder" single, also repeated as its visual representative in the liner notes and the CD tray art, is an edited Kirlian photograph Bowie had taken of his fingertip and a crucifix around the time of Station to Station; a hand-written note on the original photo◊ states that it was taken to test the effects of cocaine on Bowie's "aura" (in actuality coronal discharges, which can be emitted by any piece of matter and aren't related to anything spiritual; Bowie was just really into the occult in the mid-70's).
- New Sound Album: While still consisting of abrasive, electronic-driven art rock in the vein of 1. Outside from two years earlier, Earthling is much more danceable and less brooding, owing to Bowie taking influence from Britain's drum & bass scene.
- One-Word Title: The album title.
- To Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs of all things! Bowie wanted to pen a song that incorporates the names of all seven dwarfs within the lyrics. This would become "Little Wonder".
- The formatting of the title text on the album cover evokes that of Talking Heads' 1983 album Speaking in Tongues; Bowie was a noted fan of Talking Heads and previously covered their music during a 1979 BBC Radio show.
- Spoken Word in Music: "Law (Earthlings on Fire)"Sure I get a little bit afraid, sometimes
- Surreal Music Video: All of the music videos from this album have shades of this.
- Title Track: "Law (Earthlings on Fire)". Also a subversion of Title Drop— Earthling is mentioned, but in plural form.
- Translated Cover Version: A Mandarin version of "Seven Years in Tibet" can be found in 2002's Best of Bowie DVD as an Easter Egg.
- Wham Shot: Occurs 2 minutes 40 seconds into the video for "I'm Afraid of Americans". Bowie catches a taxi to leave New York to escape a stalker named Jonny (played by Trent Reznor), only to have the taxi operator licensee's name change to Jonny.