10 bowie moments that defined him (and us)

We rewind Bowie's most major music videos and explore how his journey from glam pop to dark rock changed the world.

by Tish Weinstock
12 January 2016, 3:55pm

They say that women are from Venus and men are from Mars. But 'they' forgot David Bowie: a 'Space Oddity' with a vision unlike anyone else's -- a chameleon who shape-shifted his way through his decades-spanning career. From Ziggy Stardust's androgynous glam to The Thin White Duke's experimental amorality, he's defined, redefined, created and recreated the cultural landscape we all live in. In remembrance of one of the greatest cultural icons of the 20th and 21st centuries, here are his top 10 music videos of all time.

"Space Oddity"
Ground control to Major Tom. In the 1969 track's original video, Bowie dons his finest astronaut gear and sets off in a tin can. A second stripped back version directed by longtime collaborator Mick Rock arrived a few years later, after Ziggy Stardust came to life at a 1972 gig. Rock's version features Bowie sitting down strumming an acoustic guitar, with Ziggy's shock of red hair and signature sparkly top. "Space Oddity" was Bowie's first hit and the song that launched his career after he'd spent the 60s searching for fame.

"Life on Mars?"
Standing against a plain white background -- with his turquoise Freddie Burretti suit and dazzling red hair -- David Bowie looks simply out of this world. Much like "Space Oddity," this 1971 track was treated to a Mick Rock video two years later in 1973, following the birth of Ziggy Stardust. The character began Bowie's 70s fascination with gender fluidity, androgyny and sexual ambiguity. That opening shot in which he appears covered in blue eye make up and red lipstick changed the possibilities of pop.  

"John, I'm Only Dancing"
Shot one afternoon at the Rainbow Theatre, Rock's masterpiece captures Ziggy Stardust at his best, as Bowie's backing band Spiders from Mars danced in the background. At the time of its release, the video's gay undertones were considered so controversial that the video was prevented from being broadcast on the BBC. They were only dancing!

"Rebel Rebel"
Rocking an eyepatch, a bodysuit, and a crop of even redder hair than usual, Bowie as Diamond Dogs' Halloween Jack looks every inch the rebel that he was. "Rebel Rebel" was Bowie's farewell to the glam scene fashion he'd defined as Ziggy Stardust, before moving onto the Plastic Soul of Young Americans.

Perhaps his most stripped back and raw, the video for "Heroes" sees Bowie dressed head to toe in black, shirt open, make-up free, and silhouetted against a halo of light. What more of hero do you need? Recorded in Berlin in the late 70s with storied collaborator Brian Eno, the song is the most famous from the experimental period the pair spent in the city with Iggy Pop while Bowie was trying to kick his drug habit. With the lyrics' famous image of a couple kissing by the Berlin Wall, the song would later be credited with helping end the Cold War.

"Ashes to Ashes"
In this super surreal 1980 video, Bowie appears as the incarnation of the Commedia dell'Arte character Pierrot. He's joined by a nun, a dove, a melancholic padded room, and a supporting cast of New Romantics and Blitz Club regulars. At the time, this was the most expensive video ever made. Revisiting "Space Oddity's" Major Tom, "Ashes to Ashes" was Bowie's surreal nursery rhyme swansong to the 70s. It set the template for the wild fashion excesses of the 80s.

"Let's Dance"
The video for "Let's Dance" stands out the most among Bowie's more poignant political pieces. Set in a hot and humid bar in Australia, it tells the tale of an Aboriginal people's struggles at the hands of Western imperialism. It's Bowie at his full on funkiest (no wonder: he worked with Disco king Nile Rogers of Chic). "Let's Dance" was Bowie's last Number 1 single in America, and was followed by years of (relative) commercial failure that Bowie referred to as his "Phil Collins years."

"I'm Afraid Of Americans"
On the busy streets of New York, Bowie runs away from a very suspicious looking man and thrashes around in the back of a cab. Sealed with a Halloween-like procession, the video is an expression of his fear of Americans (and the whole world in general). One of the jewels of Bowie's 90s period, the track was written with Eno as he was becoming interested in drum 'n' bass.

"Where Are We Now?"
This track trumpeted Bowie's blasting comeback after a 10 year absence. Set in an artist's studio in Berlin -- where Bowie lived in the late 70s -- the music video for "Where Are We Now?" paints a nostalgic picture of the German capital. A screen showing black and white footage of the city, the Berlin Wall, the Dschugel nightclub, various graffiti, and an auto repair shop plays in the background, while Bowie appears alongside artist Jacqueline Humphries as conjoined monkey puppets.

In what's being heralded as his parting gift to the world, Bowie's latest video for "Lazarus" features the singer confined to a hospital bed with his eyes covered in bandages. This costume reprises the same styles in "Blackstar," the first video released from his 26th studio album last week. Including the lyrics "Look up here, I'm in heaven," this video is the last utterance from one of the greatest cultural icons of all time.

david bowie
Ziggy Stardust