For his stark new music video, “Valentine’s Day” (above), David Bowie, standing alone in a monolithic old building among a row of concrete columns, stares intently into the camera while passionately delivering the lyrics and strumming a small red guitar.
It’s a surprisingly minimalistic affair, especially in light of the star-studded and even controversial videos that have preceded “Valentine’s Day” throughout Bowie’s The Next Day record cycle, “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” and the album’s title track.
But taking a closer look at Bowie’s long and storied history, such unexpected left turns and sudden stylistic changes are part and parcel of this artiste‘s repertoire, particularly in the music video medium.
Producing music videos since the late ‘70s (“Be My Wife” from Low is essentially a low-budget version of “Valentine’s Day,” right down to the red guitar), Bowie developed a long-standing relationship with director David Mallet, who has helmed the majority of his clips through the years.
Ranging from straightforward performance sets to highly conceptual art pieces, Bowie’s particular vision and inimitable style have helped craft his panoramic videography that ranges from the sublime (a black and white rendition of “Wild is the Wind” from 1981) to the wonderfully ridiculous (Bowie’s camp-tastic, very ’80s “Dancing in the Street” duet with Mick Jagger just never gets old).
Here’s a look at five highlights from David Bowie’s video history. We went ahead and created some custom VMA categories for him, though the idea of Bowie being nominated for a VMA these days is downright laughable.
The Man of the People Moment: “DJ” (1979)
Back when the most famous DJs were still the ones spinning hits on the radio, Bowie’s twisted look into that world resulted in this single from his stellar 1979 full-length, Lodger. Featuring shots of Bowie ransacking a radio station in a stylish pink jumpsuit, it’s the images taken of the singer casually strolling down a London street that make the video. Generating a crowd of onlookers, Bowie is quickly surrounded, playing it cool while people both male and female kiss his face and fight to get next to the star.
The Major Tom Update Moment: “Ashes to Ashes” (1980)
Another career highlight, Bowie entered the ‘80s in triumphant fashion with 1980 album, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). First single “Ashes to Ashes” set the tone, revisiting the “Major Tom” character from “Space Oddity” and creating this creepy but effective video. Featuring Bowie as a couture clown in white make-up, Major Tom can be seen as lost on some alien landscape or trapped in a padded cell, wandering around in the recesses of his mind.
The Big ‘80s Political Moment: “Let’s Dance” (1983)
For Nile Rodgers, working with Bowie on Let’s Dance was a watershed moment in his career. “I had the chance to go from being a disco producer to just being a producer,” the former Chic guitarist told Red Bull Academy. For the iconic title track’s video, the song’s red shoes are a recurring theme, as a heavily tanned and blond Bowie performs in an Australian bar while an Aboriginal couple dances amidst the mostly white patronage. The clip’s political message regarding the Aboriginals’ place in ‘80s Australian society is hard to miss in the metaphor-heavy video.
The ‘90s WTF? Moment: “I’m Afraid of Americans” (1997)
For 1997’s Earthling, David Bowie was finding inspiration in all things electronic. From the production aesthetics of drum & bass to the metallic crunch of industrial, Bowie would collaborate with Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor for this song and completely bizarre music video. Featuring a genuinely scary-looking Reznor as the song’s “American” tracking Bowie (rocking a bright yellow turtleneck sweater) through the streets of New York. After attacking Bowie with an invisible assault rifle, Reznor ends up in a Jesus Christ pose, carrying a large cross in middle of a haunting procession through the deserted city streets.
The Religious Outrage Moment: “The Next Day” (2013)
One look at the video for the title tracks to Bowie’s latest long-player, and it’s easy to see why the Catholic Church was so outraged. Packed with religious imagery (actor Gary Oldman plays a priest cavorting with scantily-clad women), bare, pierced breasts and fountains of blood from a model’s stigmata, the sexual overtones mixed with religious symbolism plays like sacrilege on parade.