David Bowie was unfathomable. Everything from his life to his career made him a true artist, the kind that only comes up every few generations. There was something about him, an undefinable quality. Something that captured audiences and continues to enthral listeners to this day. And it is exactly that something that shaped the modern Western music industry.

Bowie changed music forever. He did that by constantly reinventing himself, a quality very much present in today’s music industry. In a 1976 Rolling Stone interview, the British artist said “I always thought that I should change all the time. (…) I stripped myself down, chucked things out and replaced them with a completely new personality. When I heard someone say something intelligent. I used it later as if it were my own. When I saw a quality in someone that I liked. I took it. I still do that. All the time.”

It was this chameleon-like approach that made him one of the most influential artists of all time and inspired modern-day musicians. Bowie wasn’t afraid of experimenting, and he kept reinventing himself through his music. His style constantly shifted, but it was always recognizable as Bowie.

A far-reaching musical impact

With his distinctive powdery voice, he would go from one style to another, redefining each genre he touched, one song at a time. The musician elevated each genre and brought it to the mainstream masses, creating something new out of what was already there. He blurred genres, with an undeniable influence across the spectrum of Western music. Through his musical mashups, he influenced more modern musical genres than any other rock star, living or dead.

Surprisingly, Bowie started his musical career in folk, with his self-titled debut album David Bowie (1967). His opening song, “Uncle Arthur”, has an undeniable folk-like influence, without being folk. “Space Oddity” (1969), one of his most famous titles, also has its place in folk music history, with what would be known as “freak folk”. With his prog-rock sound, the song features a folk-style guitar and the chords are some of the genre’s most emblematic arrangements. In 1970, Hunky Dory and The Man Who Sold the World also furthered Bowie’s impact on folk-rock music.

Bowie then moved on to glam rock. He produced two albums within the style, simultaneously transcending it. If Bowie hadn’t gone glam, the sub-genre would have never had such significance in music history. The musician didn’t only create glam classics, he created rock classics.

It was also during his glam-rock era that he created his first and most iconic persona, Ziggy Stardust, also known as Starman. Ziggy, an alien rockstar, first featured in the concept album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972). Ziggy embodied both the artist’s theatrics and the whole glam rock scene. Bowie’s elevated artistry allowed glam rock to be remembered for more than over-the-top shows, establishing the credibility of the genre and inspiring countless musicians to follow in his theatrical footsteps, one of them being Lady Gaga. Despite Ziggy’s popularity, Bowie retired the persona in 1973 and created the persona of Aladdin Sane in the album Aladdin Sane, often described as Ziggy Stardust goes to America. Through Sane, the artist explored his disenchantment with fame’s trappings and ephemeral nature, bringing a darker tone to his next creative phase.

The Man Who Sold the World (1970), Bowie’s most rock-sounding album despite featuring the acoustic guitar, marked the musician’s evolution to a more hard rock sound. Inspired by Ozzy Osbourne and Alice Cooper, his work became darker, yet Bowie maintained his theatrical lyrics and performances, inspiring generations of future musicians to come. He paved the way for artists like Marilyn Manson and other modern artists in the metal, grunge, and hard-rock range. During that phase, Bowie also collaborated with the Rolling Stones in 1985 (“Dancing in the Streets”) and Queen, another rock band known to mash genres together (“Under Pressure”). Bowie became one of the world’s most influential rock stars, despite never throwing himself into the genre, and later rock musicians such as Kurt Cobain and rock band Green River acknowledged his influence in their renditions of “The Man Who Sold the World” and “Queen Bitch”. Today, Bowie continues to influence rock musicians.

Bowie’s massive musical scope didn’t end there. He also experiment with electronic music, bringing arty electronics from Kraftwert to the mainstream masses, and fused rock and electronic in his Berlin Trilogy (1977-1999), most known for the track “Heroes”. Radiohead, one of the most famous electronic bands today, cited Bowie as an influence in their 2000 album Kid A.

The British artist also had a massive impact on pop music, creating the sound of the 1980s with his multi-genre mashup album Let’s Dance (1983), an album that sold over 7 million copies worldwide. The title track “Let’s Dance” became Bowie’s first and only song to hit no.1 on both the UK and US charts, and would define the sound of alternative dance music to this day. Other pop-inspired songs from his 1971 Hunky Dory album such as “Changes” and “Andy Warhol” effectively became the blueprint for every future sound of lo-fi indie pop music, influencing artists such as Ariel Pink.

The musician’s influence is noticeable in nearly every modern genre. His mashup of genres had a far-reaching impact on the music industry, influencing more artists and producers than one could count. He influenced rap and hip-hop artists such as Kanye West and Jay-Z, but also pop artists such as Madonna (her first concert was a David Bowie one) or Harry Styles. Bowie collaborated with Iggy Pop, produced Lou Reed, and sang with Bing Crosby. His music also was sampled numerous times, by names like Public Enemy and Ice Cube, who used his work as their own. He even had admirers in the classical music world, with composers like Philip Glass, who based two symphonies on him. Bowie influenced pretty much every modern musician, by influencing more musical genres than anyone else, creating multiple signature styles from musical mashups. He created an exciting body of work, almost apart from time. This idea of having multiple styles and ways of seeing the world radically affected the culture of the late 20th century and 21st century.


Bowie gave artists the freedom to explore their musical styles, who they were, and reflect on what they have to offer to the world. He did that not only through his music but also through his innovative use of fashion and imagery, as represented by his different personas.

With his distinctive sound and anhydrous look, Bowie changed the music scene forever. He saw music as a narrative, and the invention of personas became part of his style. The idea that one persona could have multiple creative identities was revolutionary, even if the artist saw it as theatre rather than personal evolution, according to Randy Lewis in a 2016 L.A. Times article. And that is exactly what modern musicians do today: they perform.

Bowie didn’t just want to be a singer on stage. He wanted to combine theatre and music, creating a captivating atmosphere during his shows. The artist infused two performance styles, blending his acting skills with his musicianship through his stage personas, designed to better reflect the stories he sang about. These interpretational skills blended with his stage presence would become what modern-day musicians aspire to.

Not only did his music have a massive influence on the music industry since the early 1970s, but Bowie also influenced society as a whole through his various personas, inspiring personal artistry and non-conformity in the modern world. The ultimate outsider made people feel more accepted.

His music, style, and outlook on life impacted the world in a manner that remains unique to this day. These constant shifts brought a sense of theatricality to the music scene, blurring the lines between an artistic performance and a concert. His colourful alter-egos influenced the work of fashion designers and pop stars.

Bowie’s first persona, Ziggy Stardust, an alien rockstar, famously defied gender norms with his anhydrous look, bright red hair, Japanese-inspired makeup, high-heeled boots, and flamboyant jumpsuits. Today, this might seem normal, but at the time it was revolutionary. In a 2014 PBS interview, Bowie said of Ziggy “The clothes were, at that time, simply outrageous. Nobody had seen anything like them before”. Ziggy went against social norms, inspired by Bowie’s time in New York, where he frequented Andy Warhol and New York’s counter-culture.

With him and his later personas, Bowie struck the formula for fame: a great songwriter with a great look and a great stage presence. Essentially, the formula of any modern-day performer. Not only that, but Bowie’s songs in The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust provided a critical note on both current matters like politics and also questioned emerging topics, notably drugs and sexual orientation.

Aladdin Sane followed Ziggy’s footsteps, capturing a new era, the glam-rock era marked by themes of disenchantment. Defined by a pasty-white face, and the famous red and blue bolt of lightning painted across his face, Aladdin Sane (a pun on “A lad insane”) represented complex and darker subjects. Halloween Jack, the next persona, was also a mutation of Ziggy Stardust, but in a campier way. The character, whose first appearance was on Diamond Dogs (1974), maintained Ziggy’s red mullet, with the addition of an eye patch, scarved and platform heels, a look that would later inspire punk rock musicians.

The musician’s final persona was the thin white duke, appearing in the mid-70s. Bowie ditched the mullet and silk dressed for a slicked-hair style and a smarter attire: a white shirt and a black waistcoat. Influenced by Bowie’s film role “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976), the neo-cabaret character came to symbolize a period of drug addiction and deep stress for Bowie. Bowie disconnected from the real world, living on a diet of red and green peppers washed down with milk. This character marked the end of his stage personas.

After spending many years as somebody else on stage, Bowie appeared on stage as himself. He kept observing the world around him, using his music as a social commentary, as he did with the space race (“Space Oddity”) or the Berlin Wall (“Heroes). Music helped him make sense of the world around him, and inspire change; something that modern artists aspire to.

Throughout his life, Bowie embraced a unique fashion style and fluid sexuality, bending gender norms. The musician kept experimenting, with a “dramatic sense of showmanship and theatricality” (Randy Lewis, 2016 L.A. Times), with his music, public image, and fluid sexuality. In the 1970s, a time when homosexuality was still mostly illegal, he declared he was gay and later declared he was bisexual. In 1972, in a performance of the hit single “Starman” on the British music show “Top of the Pops”, Bowie put his arm around guitarist Mick Ronson, in a flirty manner. This gesture shocked audiences, and later became an important moment, at a time when the sexual revolution was in its full course, pushing the idea that gender and sexuality were an exploration.

The musician used his anhydrous look and performances to “challenge what the mainstream public associated with virile cisgender men”, according to Christina Cauterucci in a 2016 Slate article. Bowie contributed to the changing attitudes on sexuality, inspiring a generation of performers to blur gender lines and play with the same boundaries. He helped pave the way for a culture shifting away from traditional gender roles and sexuality. Harry Styles would probably not blur gender lines by wearing nail polish and dresses if David Bowie hadn’t done it first. The artist inspired not only generations of musicians and producers with his once-in-a-lifetime voice and presence, but he also inspired his fans to dream, hope, create, and be themselves. As Annie Lenox articulated in her 2016 tribute to David Bowie in the BRITs icon award, “Everything he represented as an artist was, and always will be, vital and incredibly present”.

David Bowie transformed everything he touched into art, from his music to his style. His unique vision and legendary voice made him one of the most influential and famous artists of all time, leaving a distinctive mark on the modern Western music industry. Not only that, but he made the world a more diverse and accepting place.