Genius is a description frequently misused. Applied too easily, too liberally, too often. But if anyone epitomized genius it was David Bowie.
An innovator, his career spanned over forty years of singing, playing multiple instruments, arranging music, producing music, acting and painting. Between 1970 and 1980 alone, he released twelve albums. With one possible exception, they were all excellent. Listening now, his back catalogue offers a weird and wonderful voyage of discovery. Aladdin Sane still sounds daring. Diamond Dogs still sounds grandiose - a glam, gothic masterpiece. And that's before we reach Station To Station or The Berlin Trilogy or Let's Dance.
However, I'm not just talking about the music.
Bowie was also a public relations genius. He played the media as well as he played his music. As a long-time fan, I find it hard to think of an artist who has used the media more consciously than Bowie.
The classic example might be the 1972 The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Acknowledged as one of the shrewdest moves in music, it's tells the story of a little-known artist who rockets to stardom then fades in a poignant tale of decadence that mirrored his own rise (and almost fall in the 90s).
Alternatively, it might seem that his out-of-this-world productions, his mastery over the fourth-wall, his success as a performer of different characters in different genres, are the natural place to begin lauding his PR know-how. These are the elements that earned him a reputation as a chameleon after all, and he managed each with rare, natural dexterity.
Or perhaps his expert handling of the press becomes overt when remembering that 1983 interview with MTV. Bowie ended up interviewing the interviewer, calling out the music station on its apparent racism and hypocrisy. He seized the opportunity to confront them, asking why there were 'so few black faces on MTV', using his influence to steer the questioning, digging into the issue until VJ Mark Goodman was left floundering in an conversation completely out of his control. This was a skill replicated in his lyrics. In particular, whilst playing the role of the Big Brother-like Thin White Duke, his writing often reflected fierce and scathing observations of the press.
Fact is, however, Bowie's skill was evident from his first ever interview, years earlier. Taking place when he was just 17-year-old Davie Jones on the BBC Tonight programme (admittedly set up with a little help from his father, a promotions officer for Banardo's), this was nothing less than his first publicity stunt for his then-band the Manish Boys.
From this point his prowess as a frontman emerged. From this point his ability to create and refine a PR stunt became part of his art.
Even after the glamour of the 80s faded, he crafted the limelight to suit his shadow. Next Day's release only three years ago is a prime example.
As the well-known PR expert Mark Borkowski, wrote for The Drum:
The announcement of the album Next Day turned into a masterclass in understated PR (some would argue anti-PR). There was no promotion other than the music videos and only a handful of carefully selected journalists were briefed. The effect was electric. Rather than being an entertainment story the release of the song made the morning news headlines.
There was nothing shy about Bowie. There was no reason for him to be so understated with the release. No reason except acute understanding of the modern press and desire to maintain control of his image and aesthetic. One has to wonder too, if it was Bowie's example that inspired Adele's own quiet but powerful launch of 25.
The same can be said of his passing.
The world said goodbye to David Bowie just two days after his 69th birthday after an 18-month battle with cancer. The announcement was revealed with the artistry and aplomb of the Starman himself.
Not only had his sickness been hidden from the public and his death carefully announced to fans over social platform, but with Black Star just released, it was as if he was stepping out to meet the media, greeting them with all the dignity of an old friend.
Or, as the New York Times reported in an article on the performance of Lazarus at the New York Theatre Workshop, 'This is like his requiem -- like he planned it all."
Bowie's music and passion, his fashion and voice, all deserve to be honoured for their power then and legacy now. But music was not his only mastery.
Bowie will be - and should be - remembered for his all-round genius.Suggest a correction