Always ahead of his time, Bowie's visual genius augmented his amazing music.
They say that even if Babe Ruth had never picked up a bat, he still would have been worthy of the Baseball Hall of Fame because of his pre-slugger work as one of the more dominant pitchers in the sport. David Bowie’s career operates in the same way: Even if you only focused on one branch of his full creative forest—songwriting, production, acting, technological innovation—you would still be in the presence of unparalleled genius.
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So it’s not shocking to realize that even if you jettison every single Bowie song that doesn’t have an official music video, you still would have an endlessly compelling body of work. Ever the futurist, Bowie, who died at 69 after a battle with cancer, embraced the opportunities of video early in his work, and it is a testament to his interest in pushing forward that even though he was already two decades into a body of work by the time MTV launched, he is still one of the definitive video artists of all time. His keen visual style shifted as often as his sonic approach, and that is reflected in the list of clips below. Honestly, Bowie never made a bad video, but these are the cream of the crop and a fascinating cross-section of a restless artist at work.
“Underground” is a little-loved gospel-blues single from the Labyrinth soundtrack, but its video is top-notch: After encountering some of his alter-egos, he gets sucked into a partially-animated world also filled with creepy Muppets. (In doing so, it both nods to Labyrinth and foreshadows Bowie’s work on the soundtrack to Cool World.) Bowie didn’t like it, but he had nothing to be ashamed of.
2. “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson”
The 1995 industrial-opera Outside centers around a character who hunts a serial killer guilty of “art crime,” and the deeply disturbing video (helmed by “Smells Like Teen Spirit” director Samuel Bayer) draws lines between the ritualistic nature of both art and Se7en-style murder (it’s no wonder this song runs over the end credits of that movie). It’s a non-narrative look at violence and creation that sticks and haunts.
3. “John, I’m Only Dancing”
Bowie’s first foray into videos is also one of his finest, as he juxtaposes an off-kilter performance with some acrobats from a Cirque du Soleil nightmare.
4. “Jump They Say”
Directed by Mark Romanek, “Jump They Say” is a mish-mash of film homages—Alphaville is in there, and so is The Trial and A Clockwork Orange—but if you’re going to steal, you might as well steal from Goddard, Welles, and Kubrick. Bowie is an excellent actor, and this video may be his best character performance in a music video.
5. “I’m Afraid of Americans”
Bowie did a series of projects with Nine Inch Nails founder Trent Reznor in the mid-’90s, which included a joint tour and some remix work. Though Bowie’s 1995 album Outside borrowed the most from Reznor’s NIN oeuvre, his biggest contribution to Bowie’s legacy came on the Reznor remix of Earthling‘s “I’m Afraid of Americans.” It’s alarmingly simple—Bowie runs from Reznor through the streets of New York—but it purely captures a feeling of pre-millennial paranoia that infused a lot of Bowie’s end-of-the-century work.
6. “Absolute Beginners”
Absolute Beginners is a flop of a rock musical starring Bowie and directed by Julien Temple (The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle), but it has a killer Bowie-provided soundtrack. The title track’s video (also directed by Temple) does a far better job of expressing the noirish romanticism of Colin MacInnes’ far-superior novel. It’s even got a great dance-fighting scene at the end!
7. “Ashes to Ashes”
Lots of Bowie’s more recent output has been about looking back at the nooks and crannies of his own career, but he has been doing that since the ’70s. “Ashes to Ashes” checks in on Major Tom from “Space Oddity” and finds him a strung out mess. Bowie, dressed as a creepy French clown and flanked by faux-clergy, provides Tom with a fitting funeral march.
8. “Life on Mars”
Deceptively simple and unabashedly lovely, “Life on Mars” is fueled by one of Bowie’s most deeply effective tools: his alien-like eyes. No wonder he was able to convince people he was a man from the stars.
9. “Little Wonder”
Earthling, released in 1997, might be the only Bowie album that found him chasing a trend rather than predicting one. Still, even though he was a few years late to the electronica party, his experiments with dance music (particularly his dalliances with drum’n’bass and jungle, two subgenres that were huge in England at the time) are strong and compelling. The first single, “Little Wonder,” found Bowie linking the rave drug culture to his own Aladdin Sane period, all with that cool sped-up effect.
10. “Love Is Lost (Hello Steve Reich Mix By James Murphy for the DFA)”
Bowie kickstarted his own career resurrection with the release of 2013’s The Next Day, a shockingly tight collection of songs that looked back without being nostalgic. Unwilling to tour, Bowie relied on videos to get his message out, and he ended up releasing seven clips associated with songs from the album. The best is the short that accompanies former LCD Soundsystem mastermind James Murphy’s remix of “Love Is Lost,” which opens with a bit of casual phone video of Bowie washing his hands and soon projects his visage onto a faceless, motionless figure. It hits on a lot of the themes that pop up regularly in Bowie videos, like paranoia (pay attention to the old man down the hall, staring blankly), the limits of the human body, and the terrifying nature of both mannequins and clowns.
This 10-minute mini-movie, crafted to promote the just-released album of the same name, finds Bowie exploring familiar themes (religious mania, the limits of the human body, spiritual transcendence) with an entirely new set of visual cues. Much like a David Lynch film, “Blackstar” is unnerving in ways that are not entirely apparent, and like Bowie’s best work, it lives deep below the surface and sticks with you long after it fades out.
12. “Let’s Dance”
One of Bowie’s most hedonistic singles of the ’80s also has one of his loopier videos, with a ton of narrative crammed into four minutes. Co-directed by Bowie, it features a recurring image of red shoes mixed in with sweaty shots of manic swaying and Bowie’s exquisite taste in suits.
13. “The Drowned Girl”
Part of an extended series of collaborations with director David Mallett (they worked together consistently between 1979 and 1996), “The Drowned Girl” is an understated but arresting series of black-and-white images that let Bowie’s expressive face do most of the talking.
14. “New Killer Star”
In what looked for a long time like Bowie’s last video, the clip supporting the opening track from the 2003 album Reality does not feature the Thin White Duke but has his fingerprints all over it. Watch for some familiar characters and ideas, all built around a visual trick using lenticular images. It’s essentially a series of GIFs, delivered years before that became a normal form of communication.
15. “Boys Keep Swinging”
Bowie’s first team-up with Mallett, “Boys Keep Swinging” finds Bowie busting some moves in a manic disco-fashion hallucination that is raw in execution but incredibly effective.
16. “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”
Another stellar clip from The Next Day, “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” is Bowie’s sharpest exploration of celebrity—both our never-ending obsession with it and his own unique sense of fame. It co-stars Bowie doppelgänger Tilda Swinton and casts she and Bowie as the type of suburban couple who jokes about tabloids at the supermarket and watches sitcoms on the couch. Their reality is invaded by an old Bowie persona, representing the inherent strangeness of pop notoriety.
17. “Time Will Crawl”
Seriously, what is this place that Bowie finds himself in this video? Is it some sort of amateur dance troupe rehearsal space? An audition for a new cast of American Gladiators? A boot camp for cast members of a non-existent musical based on The Warriors? Whatever the scenario, just pay attention to the way Bowie moves in this clip. There’s no wasted motion, and every hair flip and tumble recovery has real meaning. Even when not dressed as Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane, you still couldn’t take your eyes off of him.
A companion to the “Ashes to Ashes” video, “Fashion” is actually a sharp representation of the glitz and grittiness of New York in the early 1980s. “Fashion” also features an early performance by Khandi Alexander (Mama Pope from Scandal) and drop-ins by former Saturday Night Live band leader G.E. Smith and first wave MTV VJ Alan Hunter.
19. “Blue Jean”
Even on the scale of David Bowie videos, “Blue Jean” is completely bonkers, particularly for Bowie’s fascinating costume and make-up choices. This is actually a truncated version of a 21-minute film called Jazzin’ For Blue Jean that was directed by Julien Temple.
20. “Fame ’90”
Full of early ’90s editing technology, bits of other videos, and random shots of fire, “Fame ’90” is as much an exploration of what director Gus Van Sant finds interesting about Bowie as it is a promotional tool for the song that originally appeared on Young Americans and got remixed for the compilation Changesbowie.