Nowadays, anybody can be a pop-music chameleon. Just make a few video clips with yourself cast in a variety of roles. Hey, it’s worked for Madonna and Janet Jackson, who have proven that you don’t need acting talent to pull it off. David Bowie, however, became a changeling the old-fashioned way: He earned it by carefully molding, then molting, one persona after another, from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke to the avant rocker to the sophisticated popmeister.
With BOWIE: THE VIDEO COLLECTION (1993, Rykovision, $19.98) you can see much of the man’s image shifting in one place. These 25 clips span 18 years, from 1972’s ”Space Oddity,” with carrot-topped Ziggy in full, androgynous bloom, to ”Fame ’90,” with Bowie in his most recent high-fashion/ slightly artsy incarnation. The earlier stuff is much more interesting, even though the conception and execution of individual videos sometimes dip in quality. The Stardust work alone-in which Bowie turned alienation into an art form-makes this tape essential. Unfortunately, the second half of the collection is dry by comparison. From 1983’s ”Let’s Dance” through 1985’s ”Dancing in the Street,” Bowie had his greatest commercial success. But rather than digging into a sustained role, like a character actor internalizing his part, he moved glibly from one assignment to another. The songs are, by and large, superficial as well. In BLACK TIE, WHITE NOISE (1994, BMG, $19.98), Bowie makes a comeback of sorts, but the format of the tape trips it up. It starts by weaving some articulate Q&A comments (”I was a closet heterosexual”) with six cheesy, lip- synched performances of tunes from Bowie’s recent album of the same title. Each of the songs was taped on the same bare-bones set with slightly different, but consistently awful, lighting and direction. Since only one of the six actually looks good, it seems as if Bowie did this stuff on the cheap. But then the tape concludes with snazzy-and costly looking-”concept” clips for three of the songs. Seeing them the second time, with vivid camera work and crisp editing, makes the earlier live versions look all the worse. Even when Bowie’s new stuff works, though, it still has the superficiality of the typical lame-o music video. Too bad. For years, each of his transformations pushed pop music in unpredictable new directions; now Bowie can barely keep up with everybody else. Bowie: The Video Collection: B+ Black Tie, White Noise: B-