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YMMV / David Bowie

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David Bowie's career has been so expansive and varied that debate is inevitable, and here are the subjective tropes to prove it.

  • Americans Hate Tingle: Along with many other Glam Rock acts, Bowie had a tough time cracking the American market until "Fame" in 1975, though he did attract a cult following in the Ziggy Stardust era beforehand. Let's Dance made him a superstar, but a series of bad artistic decisions caused his popularity to dwindle back down to a cult following in the U.S. until Heathen, and in 2016 where he was again a posthumous superstar on both sides of The Pond. In the meantime, the Rykodisc reissues, as well as and the Sound + Vision box set and the Changesbowie compilation that kicked off the reissue campaign, revived American interest in his music somewhat.
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  • Archive Panic: Bad enough he recorded so many albums and guest spots, and made so many music videos and concert films...but there's a whole filmography to explore too. TV Tropes made a special Creator.David Bowie page to help you out.
  • Author's Saving Throw:
    • Bowie expressed regret for his comments in interviews during the Thin White Duke era, during which he occasionally expressed sympathy with fascism (due, it's generally accepted, to getting Lost in Character as the Duke, who actually was a fascist). After this point, on the rare occasions when he would express political themes in his work, they often tended to be anti-fascist, anti-racist, or otherwise anti-authoritarian. Good examples are the videos for "China Girl" and "Let's Dance", as well as much of the content of Tin Machine. He also called out MTV for not playing black artists in the early days. The line "To be insulted by these fascists is so degrading" from Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) is also generally considered to be an apology for this period. (It may be worth pointing out that some of Bowie's pre-Duke material also had anti-authoritarian themes, most notably Diamond Dogs, which started out life as a musical adaptation of George Orwell's 1984, and still had several songs referencing the book even after Orwell's estate refused him the permission to use the work. It may also be worth noting that Bowie performed with a racially integrated backing band for most of The '70s).
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    • A new version of Never Let Me Down was released in October 2018 that did away with the heavily dated and much-maligned late 1980s overproduction in favor of a more "natural," acoustic-driven instrumental backing. This George Lucas Altered Version was produced by Mario J. McNulty, who had previously worked on the acclaimed 2008 remix of "Time Will Crawl" for iSelect that used similar techniques. A digital single release of "Zeroes" came out concurrently with the announcement to give a preview of what the new version of the album has to offer, and reception to the new version has been overwhelmingly positive. For comparison's sake, here's the original 1987 version of "Zeroes"; compared to this, the 2018 version lacks the synthesizer embellishments and overall sounds much less attached to a specific era.
  • Award Snub
    • Only one competitive Grammy Award win (1985) and a Lifetime Achievement Award (2006) that wasn't televised, since a lot of those are given out each year. The snubbing is partially due to his not actually being nominated for his music until 1984 (his first Grammy nomination was for Best Children's Album in 1979, for his Peter and the Wolf narration), and Let's Dance had the bad luck of competing against Michael Jackson's Thriller. Averted in 2017, where he posthumously clean sweeped for his last album , winning all 5 Grammys that he was nominated for.
    • On the other side of the coin, Jackson fans tend to be appalled to learn that Bowie was the winner of the Best Male Video Award at the inaugural MTV Video Music Awards in 1984, because "China Girl" went up against Thriller. ("Thriller" took home 3 other awards, bear in mind.) Maybe the fact that the lifetime achievement award, the Video Vanguard, has been named after Jackson since 1991 assuages their anger, given that Bowie won it long before Jackson did.
  • Breakaway Pop Hit: "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)", partially because he included a rearranged version of the song on Let's Dance. Now it's better-known for its appearance in Inglourious Basterds rather than the film for which it was written.
  • Broken Base: Inevitable due to all his style and image makeovers, though the biggest split came when the mainstream-oriented Let's Dance arrived.
  • Complete Monster: The Man Who Sold the World's "Running Gun Blues": The unnamed narrator is an American soldier waiting to go home after the US pulls out of The Vietnam War. Frustrated with this, the soldier sneaks out at night to kill random people, soldier and civilian alike. He uses such varied methods as shooting, stabbing, bombing, and bashing. Through this, the soldier seeks to "promote oblivion", out of nothing but sadistic racism.
  • Covered Up:
    • Bowie co-wrote "China Girl" with Iggy Pop for the latter's 1977 album The Idiot, but it's Bowie's cover of the song on 1983's Let's Dance that is better known. On the other side of the coin, he had to put up with unaware listeners of The '90s who thought he was covering a Nirvana song with "The Man Who Sold the World" (which must have been particularly confounding since Kurt even says "That was a David Bowie song" at the end of Nirvana's version) and the same treatment from fans of The Wallflowers regarding ""Heroes"".
    • With Nine Inch Nails' "A Warm Place", even Trent Reznor admits it's a Suspiciously Similar Song to Bowie's "Crystal Japan".
  • Death of the Author: Bowie has been quoted as saying that art is for the use of the public and the interpretation of the listener is more important than the intention of the artist.
  • Dork Age: Three major periods are commonly singled out by fans and even the man himself.
    • Post-Let's Dance (1984-1988) — Tonight and Never Let Me Down, which carried on the mainstream pop-rock approach of Let's Dance, were not nearly as well-received (though the latter did receive some good reviews at the time while some of his classic albums had to be Vindicated by History), and the Glass Spider Tour supporting Never Let Me Down was much-criticized for its heavy Spectacle. Bowie has called this era his "Phil Collins years", and regrets that he stuck with the style for so long, trying to follow what his new fans wanted rather than what made him happy. Older fans upset with Bowie going mainstream in the first place extend this age to include Let's Dance and the Serious Moonlight tour, in which case it lasted five years instead of four...even longer if they didn't like what followed.
    • The Tin Machine era (1989-92) — Bowie breaking out of his '80s rut via a Hard Rock group was initially welcomed but quickly met with more brickbats, never mind the fact that it set up his work in The '90s. (From that decade onward, how dorky a given album is becomes a matter of personal taste, see below) This period also has a generally-acknowledged bright spot in the solo Sound+Vision tour.
    • Post-Tin Machine, Pre-retirement era (1993-2003): His output after TM was dotted with studio albums that small but vocal chunks of the fandom regard as Dork Ages. The albums with the most support for Dork Age were Black Tie White Noise (electronic lounge pop, some numbers doubling as dedications to his then-new wife Iman but at the expense of a very dated early-'90s record) and ''hours...'...' (softer, more introspective fare, that suffered heavily from late-'90s production and prompted the aforementioned Reeves Gabrels, to leave). This leaves seven other albums that have either fared better with passing time or were critically popular upon release, as well as consistently well received tours. Speaking of tours...
    • Dishonorable Mention: As it was made in the doldrums of his drug addiction and the Troubled Production of the Diamond Dogs Tour, 1974's David Live is often said to be his worst album of all time, due to his strained voice.
  • Ensemble Dark Horse: From his various backing bands you have guitarist Mick Ronson for the "Ziggy" era, guitarist Carlos Alomar for the post "Ziggy" albums, and bassist Gail Ann Dorsey for Bowie's latter day work. Gail in particular took over Freddie Mercury's parts when Bowie would play "Under Pressure" live, and she was able to perfectly nail Freddie's high notes during the bridge.
    • His Tin Machine collaborator Reeves Gabrel (now of The Cure) also deserves credit not only for working with Bowie all throughout the '90s, but helping him rediscover his inspiration after Bowie's over extended courting of the mainstream pop audience, and after the exhausting Glass Spider tour.
  • Epic Riff: Many. "Rebel Rebel" and "Panic in Detroit" are standout examples. "The Man Who Sold the World" also deserves a mention.
  • Face of the Band:
    • Bowie consciously tried to avoid being Tin Machine's face — always insisting that his other bandmates be interviewed alongside him, letting his drummer sing two tracks on the second album — but failed.
    • The trope page uses lyrics from "Ziggy Stardust" as its header quote: Ziggy was initially just a singer/guitarist in the Spiders from Mars, but he "became the special man" to the fans, much to the jealousy and resentment of the other Spiders.
    • This trope was averted in general with Bowie's back-up musicians, many of whom were or became quite well known. To this day, many Bowie fans argue passionately about who Bowie's best backing lineup, guitarist, producer, drummer, bassist and so on was.
  • Growing the Beard: Hunky Dory, his fourth album, is often regarded as his first great one. If not that, it's usually considered to be The Man Who Sold the World.
  • Harsher in Hindsight:
  • Hilarious in Hindsight:
    • The year is 1970. David is 23 and has the gall to sing, "And the rumor spread that I was aging fast."
  • He Really Can Act: While most rock stars who became actors tend to not be very good, Bowie was frequently praised by serious critics for being a very effective actor. He worked with auteur film-makers like Roeg, Oshima and Martin Scorsese, sometimes getting roles based on how effective a previous one turned out to be. Some of his newer fans treasure him for his appearance in Christopher Nolan's The Prestige where he plays Nikola Tesla. It doesn't hurt that he studied acting and mime in the formative years of his music career.
  • Ho Yay:
    • The "Dancing in the Street" video he and Mick Jagger did for Live Aid in 1985 is the most notorious example of this in the careers of both men, and has been the subject of much mockery as a result. Said mockery reached an apex in 2011 when Family Guy showed the entire video as an Overly Long Cutaway Gag in "Foreign Affairs", prefaced as "the gayest video of all time".
    • He also played up his bisexual image onstage during the Ziggy Stardust years. He and guitarist Mick Ronson used to be the page image for Faux Yay, after all.
  • Mainstream Obscurity: Low eternally dukes it out with his Glam Rock hits Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars for the title of his best album...but how many have actually listened to it and know that (among other things) four tracks are straight instrumentals?
  • Memetic Badass
    • The Venture Bros. portrays him as the shapeshifting overlord of the Guild of Calamitous Intent. ("The guy from Labyrinth turned into a bird!") In season 5 it's mentioned that he isn't the real David Bowie, just a guy who likes to pretend to be him.
    • On Naruto: The Abridged Comedy Fandub Spoof Series Show, he's an indestructible ninja with a habit of breaking into song and insisting that he's not David Bowie.
    • In Flight of the Conchords he is a sort of Gandalf-figure (portrayed, sadly, not by the man himself) who appears to Bret in three dreams, each time in the guise of a different character: Ziggy Stardust, the Pierrot of "Ashes to Ashes", and Jareth.
    • One member of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog's Evil League Of Evil is called Dead Bowie, but it's not clear whether he's meant to be the man himself or just a themed villain.
    • The Sifl and Olly Show claims the Great Pyramids of Egypt were built in anticipation of his arrival.
    • Eric Idle's 1999 novel The Road to Mars takes place in a future where a Ridiculously Human Robot of choice is the BowieBot android. Carlton, one of the 4.5 models — looking like Bowie in his Let's Dance days — serves as a secretary to the heroes (a comedy team) and has the book's primary subplot, in which it explores the concept/history of humor and whether an artificial intelligence can ever acquire a sense of it. (This book started as an unproduced screenplay; Idle is a friend of Bowie's and wrote the concept/part for him to play.)
    • After 2016 ended up stuffed full of huge political crises and beloved celebrity deaths to a quite insane degree, some fans started citing Bowie's death early in the year as proof that his very existence had been holding the entire world together.
  • Misaimed Fandom: "All the Young Dudes", written for Mott the Hoople, was seen as a celebratory anthem for the glam rock movement. In fact David Bowie has confirmed that it is precisely the opposite and the news carried by the young dudes is actually one of a future apocalypse.
    • Julian Priest, the character portrayed by Bowie in the television series The Hunger, has gained a large amount of...affection from fans over the years.
  • Misattributed Song: An unusual case. "All the Young Dudes" was first performed by Mott the Hoople, but the cumulative effect of Bowie writing, producing, and performing backing vocals and saxophone on it (he also recorded his own version and made it a concert setlist staple) means they aren't properly associated with it.
  • Never Live It Down
    • His Glam Rock yielded a lot of great work and made his name, but its campiness and glitter can unfairly overshadow what he did later.
    • The "Victoria Station incident" of '76, a case of Not What It Looks Like (see the main page) that was the low point of his Thin White Duke period — though, as it's clear in hindsight that Bowie was really not in his right mind during that particular period and he eventually got better, he's managed to live this down to some extent.
    • Those born after 1975 or so often first encounter Bowie via Labyrinth, and after that it can be hard not to think back to his ostentatious, very 1980s look and Large Ham performance when considering his other work. Luckily, it fits well into his overall career, since he's so often an ostentatious-looking Large Ham anyway. Still, it's also his best-known film role; the only one that compares to it, Thomas Jerome Newton, suffers for the fact that The Man Who Fell to Earth is a Mind Screw of a movie that doesn't get as much exposure on cable (due to its hard-R-rating content).
  • Newbie Boom:
  • One-Scene Wonder: To Memetic Mutation. The Onion A.V. Club has an article on the subject.
  • Rule of Sean Connery: Whether you use him a little or a lot, your project will be cooler for his presence.
  • Sacred Cow: Even before his death, implying that you weren't a fan of Bowie or his work would've caused people to gather their pitchforks and torches.
  • Second Verse Curse: An unusual inversion of this trope with "Heroes". The more-commonly heard single edit starts out with the third verse ("I, I wish you could swim..."), so many people aren't aware of the first two verses, or that the "I won't be king" section is a Dark Reprise of the first verse.
  • Signature Song: As his first hit, "Space Oddity" is usually regarded as this, since the range of his career and resultant arguments over his best era make it hard to settle the question otherwise. However, songs such as "Life on Mars?", "Rebel Rebel", "Starman" and especially ""Heroes"" have become competitors for the title in recent years. While relatively early in his canon, "Changes" kinda pokes fun at this, and (ironically) became another one of his signature tunes.
  • So Bad, It's Good: Some of his pre-1969 songs, especially the novelty tune "The Laughing Gnome", and his "Dancing in the Street" duet with Mick Jagger in 1985, mostly because of the goofy, Ho Yay-fueled video (another reason the mid-'80s are often called Bowie's big Dork Age).
  • Some Anvils Need to Be Dropped: "I'm Afraid of Americans" is one big sardonic callout towards the prevalence of gun violence, poverty, and overall degeneracy in American society. Granted, it's not as harsh towards America as "Born in the USA", but the message is still pretty powerful, particularly in recent years.
  • Suspiciously Similar Song: Compare "New Angels of Promise" (from hours...) to "Sons of the Silent Age" (from "Heroes").
  • Tear Jerker: See the tearjerker page for this artist. Beyond songs, The Man Who Fell to Earth can also qualify as this; while Thomas Jerome Newton is a Tragic Hero with the flaw of naivete rather than The Woobie, by movie's end he definitely could use a hug...
  • They Changed It, Now It Sucks!: Due to his frequent reinventions, Bowie has faced this constantly — "I preferred him as singer-songwriter, space alien, blue-eyed soul singer, Kraftwerk-esque Krautrocker, etc." But it was especially bad after Let's Dance, partially because it overlapped with It's Popular, Now It Sucks!.
  • Tough Act to Follow: Cracked's "5 Works of Art So Good, They Ruined Their Whole Genre" calls The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars a tough act to follow in glam rock.
  • True Art Is Incomprehensible, True Art Is Angsty, and Mind Screw: The premise of the 1.Outside narrative.
  • Vindicated by History:
    • Hunky Dory didn't get much attention until after the success of Ziggy Stardust, but once it did... well, the fact that it spawned two Signature Song candidates ("Changes" and "Life on Mars?") should say something.
    • This also applies to the Berlin Trilogy, which underperformed on the charts compared to his previous albums (especially outside of the U.K.) — in fact, ""Heroes"", now another Signature Song candidate, did not make waves as a single when it was new.
    • The critically-lambasted Glass Spider tour is now seen as an influence on the complex stage shows that rock and pop acts routinely take on the road nowadays.
    • While Bowie's work as part of Tin Machine was met with middling to outright hostile reviews in its time, in the years since the band has gone on to receive considerable acclaim from retrospective reviewers and has been recognized as being a significant influence on 1990's Alternative Rock and especially grunge. Nowadays, the Tin Machine era is regarded as one of Bowie's most underrated, rivaled only by the Berlin Trilogy. It helps that Bowie himself regarded the band as being crucial to his renaissance as a solo artist in the years after they disbanded.
    • Finally, some of Bowie's post-Tin Machine work is also undergoing this in the wake of the success and popularity of his post-retirement albums The Next Day & . 1. Outside in particular is now considered a classic amongst die-hard Bowie fans. For example, a popular Bowie blog ran a poll in 2015-2016 for his best albums, where it came in at ninth.
  • What Do You Mean, It Wasn't Made on Drugs?: Averted with Station to Station. And this was right after he was in a movie that also begs this question, but the filmmakers themselves weren't on drugs.
  • The Woobie:
    • As Bowie has a good deal of sympathy/empathy for the plight of the "freaky" folk of the world, tales of misunderstood, suffering souls turn up occasionally in his work.
    • The old veteran in "Little Bombardier" (from his debut album). After years of loneliness and depression, things seem to turn around for him when he strikes up an Intergenerational Friendship with some schoolchildren — and then the police, who suspect he means ill, nip that in the bud.
    • The "missionary mystic of peace/love" known as the "Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud" (Space Oddity). Sentenced to hang by frightened villagers, willing to accept his fate, and only lives because of an avalanche from the titular mountain that destroys the village — despite his pleas for it to stop, leaving him brokenhearted.
    • The title character in the play The Elephant Man is an unabashed, Real Life-inspired woobie, and Bowie essayed the role on Broadway to much acclaim in 1980. (As per the play's instructions, he used body movement and voice inflection to suggest his deformity.)
    • The protagonist of "Jump They Say" (Black Tie White Noise) is a little...different from others mentally, and is Driven to Suicide by — depending on interpretation — voices in his head or society as a result. It's even worse in the video, where Bowie plays the poor soul as a businessman taken captive by his heartless peers and subjected to electroshock therapy, paving the way for his fateful jump. (To twist the knife in further, it's after his jump that the viewer sees a wedding band on his finger...) Also has a sad Reality Subtext, in that the song's inspired by the demise of Bowie's schizophrenic half-brother Terry Burns.


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