NPR logo David Bowie, The Internet Visionary

Commentary

David Bowie, The Internet Visionary

David Bowie performs during a concert celebrating his 50th birthday, on Jan. 9, 1997, at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Ron Frehm/AP hide caption

toggle caption
Ron Frehm/AP

David Bowie performs during a concert celebrating his 50th birthday, on Jan. 9, 1997, at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Ron Frehm/AP

David Bowie's death has a lot of communities mourning. Though his greatest success was in music, he was admired as a trailblazer in fashion, film, gender politics and, as it turns out, technology. Here are just a few of his early forays into digital media.

In 1996, he released his single "Telling Lies" online and got 300,000 downloads at a time when most of the world barely understood what the Internet was.

In 1997, Bowie did a "cybercast" of his Earthling concert in Boston, though it was well before most people had a fast enough Internet connection to really experience it.

Then, in 1998 he launched his own Internet service provider, BowieNet, which offered global high-speed Internet service. (Well, high speed for its time.)

More than that, it was an early fan community. According to a 1998 press release, the service included a personal email address (yourname@davidbowie.com), access to exclusive music from Rolling Stone and, of course, exclusive content from Bowie and his friends, including live chats with the artist. (BowieNet quietly shut down in 2006.)

In 1999, Bowie made a foray into the video game world. He worked on the soundtrack for Omikron: The Nomad Soul with French game developer Quantic Dream and made an appearance in the game itself.

Bowie's endeavors proved ahead of their time. Though launching new Internet services may not have become commonplace for artists, the rest has: Musicians write music for video games, live-stream concerts, share music digitally and engage with fans online.

Bowie understood before most of his compatriots in the music business that the Internet would change everything. In an interview from late 1999, Bowie spouted off about the revolutionary qualities of the Internet to the largely skeptical BBC interviewer Jeremy Paxman.

YouTube

Bowie told Paxman that if he were 19 at the time of their chat, he wouldn't have gone into music, which he thought had lost its place as the flag-bearer of rebellion. "The Internet carries the flag of being subversive and possibly rebellious and chaotic, nihilistic," Bowie said.

What Bowie seemed to know in his gut was the Internet was fundamentally shifting the relationship between artist and audience. And while so many musicians and music business insiders reacted to the changes with fear, Bowie was filled with curiosity, inspired by technology.

"It's becoming more about the audience," he said. "So from my standpoint, being an artist, I want to see what the new construction is between artist and audience. There is a breakdown."

Bowie cited rave culture "where the audience is at least as important as whoever is playing at the rave," as if the artist accompanies the audience.

"I don't think we've seen the tip of the iceberg," Bowie told Paxman. "It's almost if we're on the cusp of something both exhilarating and terrifying."

Bowie mentioned the French-American artist Marcel Duchamp, whom he called prescient on the idea that a piece of work is not finished until the audience adds its interpretation — "and what the piece of art is about is the gray space in the middle."

To Bowie, the 21st century was all going to be about the gray space in the middle. The place where artist and audience meet and improvise — a kind of ongoing live performance. With a little bit of irony, he called the Internet "an alien life form."

Of course, some thought Bowie himself was a bit of an alien life form. His first starring film role was as an alien in The Man Who Fell To Earth. And it was one of so many roles he played on stage and on screen — Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, Jareth the Goblin King, Major Tom.

Bowie was an explorer of what it meant to be human. He took us places with his music and creativity. And he was curious and interested to find out how new technology would shape him and us. Sadly, he won't be here to help us continue this exploration of "the gray space in the middle."

For my part, I say thank you, David Bowie, for helping to launch us into the 21st century. I have faith that your music will be very much alive online.