20th March 2013
LONDON — When did the modern era begin? With the Renaissance? With Elvis Presley?
For a generation of music-loving Britons, it started on July 6, 1972, when David Bowie performed the song “Starman” on the TV show “Top of the Pops.”
Lonely teenagers in suburban bedrooms across the land were entranced, and, in many cases, inspired.
The ripples from that moment help explain why a major new multimedia exhibition about Bowie at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is the fastest seller in the institution’s history, with 50,000 advance tickets sold — and why Bowie is topping music charts once again at the age of 66.
The “David Bowie Is” exhibition, which opens Saturday, marks the first time Britain’s leading museum of decorative arts and design has devoted a show to a pop star.
“Bowie is no ordinary pop star,” co-curator Victoria Broackes said Wednesday. “He has seeped into every area of our culture” — music, fashion, performance and design.
“In the last couple of years, the fashion references have been non-stop,” Broackes said. “Jonathan Saunders, Miu Miu, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Gucci — all reference him. It seems that the creative directors of those companies often are of a certain age, and perhaps they first came across David Bowie in the ‘70s and have reached these positions of authority now.”
Bowie is arguably music’s greatest chameleon, a performer who has adopted and discarded personas with abandon as he moved through musical styles from folk-rock to glam to soul to electronica.
As a teenager, he transformed himself from plain old David Jones — born in 1947 and raised in the drab south London suburbs — to exotic David Bowie. Then he went on to create a series of larger-than-life stage characters — astronaut Major Tom, alien rock star Ziggy Stardust, troubled Aladdin Sane, the enigmatic Thin White Duke.
It’s that eclecticism, the show argues, that makes Bowie uniquely influential — he has mixed up sounds and styles, genres and genders, to come up with something all his own.
The show includes glimpses at Bowie’s wide range of influences, from British musical theater to Berlin cabaret; from German Expressionism to Japanese Kabuki; from surrealism to Andy Warhol.
Bowie gave curators access to his personal archive, although he was not directly involved in planning the show. The 300 items on display include film clips, photographs, handwritten lyrics, storyboards for videos and drawings of costumes and sets.
There is plenty to thrill Bowie fans, from his first single (”Liza Jane,” by Davie Jones and the King Bees, released in 1964) to film footage of the only meeting between Bowie and Andy Warhol — an awkward 1971 encounter — to a painting by Bowie of Iggy Pop in a wintry 1970s Berlin.
In contrast to the hushed halls throughout the rest of the museum, there is plenty of sound and vision, including performance footage from Bowie’s large-scale tours and inventive videos for songs like “Ashes to Ashes.”