The first thought that crossed my mind when I was propositioned with attending the David Bowie Is exhibition in Groningen Museum was, “Am I hipster enough to attend this?” I know it may sound ridiculous but until David Bowie had died, I really didn’t know much about him, his life or his music. After his passing on the 10th January 2016, I had become acutely aware that in comparison to other people of my generation, I had no idea about his enormous contribution to music. My thoughts were fueled when on a night out in town a week after his death, I saw lots of party-goers with lightning stripes painted on their faces in commemoration of his passing, and me, in my ignorance, couldn’t believe that young people my age could be such huge and devout fans. Despite this and all my hesitations, I headed off to Groningen with Jacob, Bram and Barbara, his parents and Coen and Mitchell, his brother and brother-in-law. Little did I know that I would return Tuesday evening to Utrecht with more knowledge, amazement and admiration for David Bowie and his life than I ever could have imagined.
I am one of those people who is cursed with knowing the words to every song in every different kind of genre imaginable, without necessarily knowing who sang it or which decade it came from. So it didn’t come as much of a surprise to me (although it actually did), that I knew a lot of David Bowie’s songs without ever knowing that it was him who sang them. Cliche of course, I knew all the big hits: Heroes, Ashes to Ashes, Starman, Let’s Dance and Space Oddity to name but a few. While a lot of non-musically inclined individuals might know Heroes as sung by U2, or Under Pressure more notably famed as a legendary Queen anthem, little do they know that Bowie was the mastermind behind the lyrical and musical production of these records. Barbara Streisand, My Chemical Romance and Red Hot Chili Peppers are just a few other notable names to have covered his records. In summary, the man was a lyrical genius and his influence in the music industry is perhaps incomparable with any other individual of his time.
Groningen Museum’s presentation of the David Bowie Is exhibition was, in short, exceptional. On arrival we checked in our coats and bags and went to collect our headsets which we would listen to for the duration of our time spent in the museum. The tour began with an introduction into Bowie’s early life growing up in Bromley and his first forays in music before his breakthrough as a game-changer and innovator in the music industry. Accompanied by clips of Bowie interviews from the 1960’s onward, displays of his genuine costumes from his performances over his 50 or so odd years as a musician and preserved lyric sheets and music scores, it was really incredible to immerse yourself in the life of a man who aimed to spread so much happiness and inspiration through his music.
Bowie was undoubtedly the mastermind behind his own success. We learned at the exhibition that his first hit Space Oddity, was played to the background of visuals of Neil Armstrong landing on the moon in 1969, and so Bowie found instant fame in a gaining a wide audience garnered from such an event. From visiting the exhibition it was made very clear that he was a visionary of his time, who saw more to a musical performance than standing on his stage with a microphone and singing. Bowie was concerned with the music, staging, costume design and overall aesthetic purposes of his performances. I was quite honestly fascinated to watch his transformations throughout the years of his career. From Ziggy Stardust to The Thin White Duke to returning to his own persona in his later years, Bowie ultimately transformed how pop music was viewed in the 1960s and 1970s.
The above clip of Bowie performing Starman on the BBC on Top of the Pops in 1972 , showcases Bowie undertaking the Ziggy Stardust persona with the crazy red-brown hair and brightly coloured outfit. In many ways, this performance marked the beginning of Bowie’s intentions as a musician, artist and performer; his androgynous appearance blurs the lines between masculine and feminine. One of Bowie’s earliest costume designers, Kansai Yamamoto who collaborated with Bowie on many of his outfit designs, noted that Bowie suited his flamboyant designs as he had the face of a man, but also that of a woman and so he raised the question in people’s minds about what it meant to be masculine and what it meant to be feminine. Over the years Bowie returned to lyrics and personas concerning outer space and aliens and in many ways the alien motif greatly sums up what Bowie tried to do in the music industry throughout the years; he created characters that were eccentric and outsiders, but characters who had so much to tell the world.
I could go on and on about how talented David Bowie is, his contribution to the fashion world and of course, his success as an actor, but the exhibition really speaks for itself. If anyone has a chance to visit it, it runs in Groningen Museum until the 10th April. If you don’t get the chance to visit, I would highly recommend taking half an hour of your time to watch his clips on YouTube or read up on his incredible life, because you won’t be disappointed. Undoubtedly David Bowie has left an incredible impression on millions of fans around the globe, and having visited this exhibition and learning about his life and career, I can safely say that I too can now classify myself as a fan.