David Bowie: the man who fooled the world (and we love him for it)

Even in death, Bowie knew his spectacle would live on.

David Bowie wasn't just a musician; he made celebrity spectacular. Throughout his career, he demonstrated an unerring ability to market himself. To capture trends, adapt them into a personalised performance and to sell them as an authentic package.

Up Next

Music is my way of life

Video duration

More Entertainment News Videos

David Bowie loses battle with cancer

Stars, politicians and fans rush online to pay their respects for music legend David Bowie.

These are lessons that Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus are going to have to learn. The spectacular may capture the audience in the moment, but the authentic will hold them 40 years later.

Bowie's career can be summed up in decades. In the late 1960s, he was a one-hit wonder, with Space Oddity his only charting success.

The '70s was Ziggy Stardust and Bowie as cutting-edge androgynous swishiness.

The '80s was about selling out. True fans wish the world would forget Let's Dance ever happened.


The '90s was Bowie trying to recapture the magic of counter-culture but age wearied him.

The 2000s, after a heart attack on-stage, were silent. No new music, no tours, no interviews. Only stories shared by fans and the media about how great he was.

In 2013, Bowie came back. With The Next Day released with no publicity, and an accompanying retrospective exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, to huge success. Bowie reproduced himself. He was not just a music icon of the past but he was now mysterious and respectable. Unlike his peer group of ageing rockers – think The Rolling Stones and the smirks that accompanying a well-pickled (sorry, preserved) Keith Richards.

The power of the celebrity, and not the media that portrays them, lies in their ability to tap into the social and cultural concerns of a time. Bowie did this with his breakthrough character Ziggy Stardust, a sexually ambiguous alien who becomes a messiah at the start of the apocalypse on Earth. Ziggy represents a time of social and economic upheaval of the early '70s, with the Summer of Discontent in Britain and the advent of Thatcherism. Ziggy reflected a cultural pessimism for the future and the youth's desire to party before it all went to shit.

Bowie captured moments and movements. He was the first white musician to appear on the African-American music show Soul Train (1974). His Berlin trilogy albums, Low (1977), Heroes (1977), and Lodger (1979), with producer Brian Eno, are considered some of the most ground-breaking records in the world of pop. His music video for Let's Dance (1983) spoke to the racial inequality faced by Aboriginal Australians before Mabo and Aboriginal rights was a mainstream issue. He was the first mainstream artist to sell his music as electronic downloads and interact with his fans on social media.

He shifted through time. Through his music, characters, technology, and social commentary.

In his final act, Bowie has proved his marketing genius with the timing of his last album, Blackstar, released two days before his death; a parting gift to fans that was raved about on social media before his unexpected passing, and is now selling like the next iPhone. Bowie has shown the world of celebrity how to do it right.

Bowie's farewell single, Lazarus, starts with "Look up here, I'm in heaven" and ends with "Oh I'll be free / Ain't that just like me".

Even in death Bowie knew his spectacle would live on – and there is both optimism and freedom in that.

Dr Toni Eagar is a lecturer in marketing and celebrity at the Australian National University. Her research on David Bowie, with Dr Andrew Lindridge of the Open University, can be read in the Journal of Marketing Management, Advances in Consumer Behaviour and Research in Consumer Behaviour.