We’re introducing augmented reality, a new approach to digital storytelling. Read about how to use it on your phone or tablet here. If you want to skip it for now, you can view an alternate immersive experience instead.
We’re introducing augmented reality, a new approach to digital storytelling. Read about how to use it on your phone or tablet here.
David Bowie had a great, loud, infectious laugh. So said his friend Laurie Anderson, and she imitated it: HA-ha-HA. “It was way out there – partly a musical note, but partly a cough, and partly a howl. It was not a polite British laugh,” she said. “It was just full on.”
When Ms. Anderson, the musician and composer, and the widow of Bowie’s longtime collaborator Lou Reed, remembers him now, he is laughing, teasing, finding joy. Bowie was “very, very smart,” she said, but not self-serious – he was “hilarious, and had a great sense of playfulness. The kind of guy who would wear some pantaloons. What other rock star did that?”
The gregarious and giggly David Bowie: that’s not the public perception of the star, who died in 2016. But as an artist – renegade musician, actor, painter and fashion pioneer – Bowie was never whom you expected. His transformations are cataloged in ” David Bowie Is,” the fulsome retrospective now closing out a five-year, blockbuster world tour at the Brooklyn Museum. “David Bowie Is Someone Else,” reads the final, glowing sign in the exhibition, and it may be the truest thing there.
His sense of the absurd was finely tuned early on – he studied and performed mime, and became fascinated with experimental theater – and he used it in every bit of his quixotic, half-century career. It’s sharpest in his stagewear, equal parts Kabuki and titillation, elegance and glitter.
In these augmented reality presentations of his costumes, you can examine, close up, his eye for detail, how he flouted gender and social norms, his encompassing vision for his work.
Like any artist, he borrowed from others, said Nile Rodgers, the producer who worked with him often in the ’80s and ’90s. But in Bowie’s alchemy of aesthetics, “It’s like he completely originated it from scratch,” he said. “It feels like it’s his own. David was so iconic and unique and visionary in the world of rock ‘n’ roll.”
In his changeability, his musical innovation, his visual acuity and his sense of fun in it all, Bowie built a blueprint for artists, from Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails to Beth Ditto of Gossip (both superfans who have devoured the exhibit), and for anyone else with verve.
A 360° Vision
When Nile Rodgers first met David Bowie, “It was like love at first sight,” creatively speaking, said Mr. Rodgers, who produced “Let’s Dance,” Bowie’s best-selling record. “Honestly, we were mesmerized with each other – this sensory overload kind of thing, ‘Oh my God, you’re into this too?'”
Bowie borrowed and experimented everywhere. The Kansai Yamamoto black-and-white striped patent leather jumpsuit above was influenced by his study of Kabuki; his spiky orange hair was modeled after a woman in a Yamamoto ad, and concocted with hair dye, peroxide and an anti-dandruff treatment, for stiffness. And when he committed to a character, like Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane, he gave his entire aesthetic over to it.
He wore the below turquoise jumpsuit only once, in 1973, but the lightning bolt makeup from the cover of “Aladdin Sane” that year became an enduring part of his visual legacy.
Bowie wasn’t just meticulous, he was industrious. “David Bowie Is” is filled with directions in his own hand, for everything from stage sets to live lighting designs to album covers, like his own ink-and-graphite sketch for “Space Oddity.” He hand-wrote his lyrics, too, neatly laying out the verses and choruses for “Starman,” “Rock n’ Roll Suicide” and “Heroes.”
Vincent Tullo for The New York Times
Making “Let’s Dance,” he and Mr. Rodgers spent a week listening to music and going to museums for inspiration. They visited Jerry Wexler, the Atlantic Records executive, known for having a massive collection of vinyl. “He had a copy of television theme songs,” Mr. Rodgers said. “It’s going to sound really weird, but we listened to the theme song to ‘Peter Gunn,’ which is written by Henry Mancini, so the chart that I wrote for ‘Let’s Dance'”- he sang the melody of the chorus – “I stole this lick, ‘boo-ba boo-ba boo-ba,’ right from ‘Peter Gunn.'”
Mr. Rodgers, the guitarist and a founder of the disco act Chic, had worked with Diana Ross and Sister Sledge, but “Let’s Dance” arrived in the disco backlash. “I hadn’t had a hit in five years,” he said. After a run of success with songs titles riffing on the word dance, he had stopped using it. “I was afraid to say the word.”
Then Bowie turned up wanting to make a dance record – something evergreen, that would always get people moving, no matter if the moment was against it. “He liberated me,” Mr. Rodgers said, adding, “It was the quickest and easiest record I’ve ever done in my life, and that’s because he brought so many things to the party.”
A Fearless Chameleon
For Trent Reznor, the Nine Inch Nails frontman, Bowie was a lodestar who influenced him, he said, “as a teenager trying to figure out who I am, and later as an artist, trying to find my voice.”
Growing up, he knew “Changes”-era Bowie, of course, but what really got him hooked was the 1980 album “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).” He called the record’s musical dissonance and unsettling themes “completely alien”: “It felt uncomfortable, like a mystery that I had to figure out.”
As Bowie morphed from persona to persona, he created a mystique, Mr. Reznor said. “He was looking at it like an actor playing roles, and theater is such a big part of it that I’m sure helped inform the songwriting,” he said. “If I’m this character, in this space, aah, so I need a script, I need a story.”
Videos like ” Ashes to Ashes,” in which Bowie wore the harlequin outfit by Natasha Korniloff, owned the medium, Mr. Reznor said, “breaking down the expectation of what it meant to be in it.” He said he watched the clip for ” Boys Keep Swinging,” in which Bowie appeared dressed as women, walking a catwalk, “countless times” trying to discern “Where is he coming from?”
“What he’s done for me as an artist, or just as a fan, is expand my perception of what the rules are – remind me that, oh, yeah, you can do anything you want,” Mr. Reznor said. Bowie “just felt fearless. It really became very apparent to me, how much courage it does take to say ‘I’m not going to do that anymore, I’m going to do this.’ I didn’t love every move he made, but I appreciated every move he made.”
In the mid-90s, Bowie approached Mr. Reznor about touring with Nine Inch Nails. “It was such a validation,” Mr. Reznor said. They created an amphitheater concert where their bands traded off and joined together, only Bowie, promoting his 1995 concept album “Outside,” didn’t want to play his hits. He was aware he might alienate the audience, Mr. Reznor said, but also was secure about what he was going to do.
Vincent Tullo for The New York Times
“This is that bravery that I’ve been reading about and watching over the years – I’m witnessing it right in front of me,” Mr. Reznor recalled thinking. “Having toured an infinite amount of times around the world, that was one of the most fun little sprees that we had,” he added. “Plus I got to go out and watch him every night – take a quick shower, and watch the last half of his show.”
Bowie approached it with the same rigor he had early in his career: working closely with the set designer, envisioning lighting changes, sketching costumes.
“He didn’t need to be touring at all,” Mr. Reznor said. “He didn’t have to prove anything to anybody. And to go out and deliver a show in an environment like that – there was no laziness involved. What he instilled in me was, he cared every bit as much as I did about every detail that I could witness.”
A Gender Bender
“I didn’t think I would be the same after he died,” Beth Ditto, the dance punk singer, said of Bowie. “He’s one of those people, like Nina Simone – he just made things make sense to me. When things felt too complicated or too hard, or I needed some filter that I could see the world through, I could always rely on those two, in this funny way.”
Ms. Ditto became a fan in her 20s, as she was finding her own identity. “I can be very straight-presenting, but on the inside, who knows?” she said. Bowie slipping on a pair of platform heels, or bragging about being gay while married to a woman, “it just kind of gives you permission to feel the way that you feel, gender and queer,” she said. “It just makes me feel normal.”
His shifting personas “created this entire phenomenon,” she said. “There’s nothing like it now and there will never be anything like it again. It stood on its own” – even if he borrowed ideas from all over.
“He was a thief,” she said, “and it was amazing,” because he polished and translated every idea. “Of course there was always drag, but not in the straight world – that didn’t exist. Anything that gets a generation of straight white boys to go into the street in high heels, that’s pretty [expletive] powerful.”
Written by Melena Ryzik. Produced by Alicia DeSantis, Caryn Ganz, Sia Michel, Graham Roberts and Jolie Ruben. AR experience design and production by Mika Gröndahl, Evan Grothjan, Yuliya Parshina-Kottas, Karthik Patanjali, and Miles Peyton. AR development by Jon Huang and Blacki Migliozzi. Android development by Walter Dziemianczyk and Ramona Harrison. iOS development by Cameron Pulsford and Krzysztof Zablocki. Design by Lian Chang, Matt Ruby, and Ben Wilhelm.
Cover illustration: Lithograph by Brian Duffy; animation and design by Evan Grothjan
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