Bowie’s influence captivates millennials

By Josef Siebert

David Bowie’s theatrical version of rock ‘n’ roll pioneered glam and immediately impacted artists like the New York Dolls, Elton John and Queen.

Bowie’s influence trickled down through the decades and is apparent in the music of the Killers, the attitude of Lorde, and the fashion of Lady Gaga.

Bowie, born David Robert Jones in Brixton, London, died at 69 from liver cancer in New York. This transformative artist captured the spotlight for his poetic lyrics, music production, gender fluidity, vibrant fashion and masterful stagecraft.

David Bowie t-shirts are as much in style as his music. Josef Siebert/Medill
David Bowie t-shirts are as much in style as his music. (Josef Siebert/MEDILL)

Since his death, a downpour of commemorative pieces, blogs and posts online and in print proliferate. Yet David Bowie’s last song to crack Billboard’s Hot 100 list was “I’m Afraid of Americans,” released in 1997. So was this media surge emanating from older fans, or is Bowie just as important to millennials?

Millennials are generally defined as those of us born between 1980 and the early 2000s. In response to a query on Facebook by this reporter, several millennials volunteered their opinions on Bowie.

Jenny Markwardt, 35, a student from Virginia, Minnesota, became a fan at a young age. “Fell madly in love with ‘Fame,’ ‘Under Pressure,’ and ‘Let’s Dance’ at age 5….I would perform all over my kitchen and jump off a huge bread drawer on the drops. Later I recorded them off the radio and played them constantly in my tree fort,” Markwardt said.

Derek Erickson, 36, from San Diego, California, spoke about Bowie’s influence on music in general. ”I think David Bowie transcends labels and is a true artist and performer. Most of today’s musicians should have thanked him for straying from self-important, bloated, mainstream notions and choosing his own path that opened doors for love, music and art.”

Other posts mentioned encountering Bowie through his role in the movie “Labyrinth,” from 1986, currently sold out on Nirvana’s rendition of Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” – from Nirvana’s 1994 album “MTV Unplugged in New York” – was also a gateway to Bowie for millennials.

“MTV Unplugged in New York” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart seven months after singer Kurt Cobain’s death. Bowie’s new album “Blackstar” has also debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. It was released Jan. 8, two days before Bowie died.

Though his death has undoubtedly driven interest in “Blackstar,” sales skyrocketed immediately, according Assistant Manager Chris Wilkus at Reckless Records’ Madison Street store in Chicago, “We sold out the first day it came out, and that was before he even died.”

Interest in Bowie also drove attendance numbers to record highs last year at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. MCA  hosted the exhibition entitled “David Bowie Is” from Sept. 23, 2014 – Jan. 4, 2015, and kept the museum open after hours to accommodate record attendance by 200,000 visitors to the show. And 39 percent of the attendees were millennials, estimated MCA Media Relations Director Karla Loring, using data gathered by MCA Chicago surveys during the exhibition.

Bowie’s influence is especially important to the LGBTQ community, including those in the millennial generation.

“David Bowie was a pioneer in style and persona for the LGBT community. He wasn’t afraid to bend the rules of gender in a time where it was frowned upon,” said Jerry Nunn, a contributor and photographer for the Windy City Times and GoPride.

“His continued influence opens doors to closeted people to this day,” he said. “Bowie said he was gay, then bisexual, but was married to a woman all at the same time. Whatever his personal journey was, the main point was that he was a true original and will continue to inspire people for generations to come.”

David Bowie’s latest album, released two days before his death. (Josef Siebert/MEDILL)