When MTV made its debut on Aug. 1, 1981, David Bowie, at the ripe old age of 34, was already a rock ‘n’ roll elder statesman of sorts. But he paved the way for the new wave of British-invading baby bands – Duran Duran, Culture Club, Soft Cell, Human League, Siouxsie & The Banshees, the Cure, Bauhaus, Japan, Spandau Ballet – that dominated the fledgling cable network’s early-‘80s programming, and his videos always felt just as cool and current as the slick clips by his younger post-punk disciples. An entire new generation was introduced to Bowie’s genius via MTV; then Let’s Dance came along and he became a bona fide MTV superstar. And in the ensuing decades, Bowie continued to push the music video medium forward, again and again.
Related: David Bowie’s 10 Best Albums
Over the course of his career, Bowie – who shockingly died Sunday after a long, secret battle with cancer – released 51 music videos. None were as haunting or heartbreaking as his video swan song, “Lazarus,” released just last week, which eerily, unflinchingly documented his imminent death and just might stand as the most amazing artistic exit of all time. But the rest of his videography is filled with masterpieces that married sound and vision as only David Bowie could. Here are some of his best.
“Boys Keep Swinging” (1979)
Kicking open doors for gender-bending video stars like Boy George, Marc Almond, and Annie Lennox, in this David Mallet-directed classic Bowie played it straight in a suit, but was flanked by “backup singers” that were really multiple Bowies in full drag. The lipstick-smearing flourish around the 2:15 mark remains one of Bowie’s most iconic onscreen moments, and it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that the “runway show” at the video’s end inspired every great RuPaul’s Drag Race episode ever. Werk, Bowie, werk.
Perhaps even more foreshadowing than the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” (the first video ever shown on MTV) was this clip, shot two years before MTV, in which Bowie ransacked a radio station DJ booth. Side note: No one, not even John Travolta in his Saturday Night Fever prime, ever looked cooler strutting down the street than David frickin’ Bowie.
“Look Back in Anger” (1979)
Another groundbreaking visual from Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy” era, this one was inspired by Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray – quite fitting, since Bowie was perhaps the most ageless icon in rock, looking amazing until the very end.
“Ashes to Ashes” (1980)
At the time of its release, this Scary Monsters-era video for “Space Oddity’s” Major Tom sequel was the most expensive music video ever made, costing roughly $400,000. A fascinating artifact of London’s Bowie-fixated Blitz club scene (which spawned New Romantic icons like Boy George, Visage’s Steve Strange, and the Spandau Ballet boys), the clip starred “Blitz Kids” like Strange and clothing designer Judith Frankland, in what almost felt like a torch-passing totally-‘80s moment.
In an interesting instance of early-MTV synergy, one of the extras in this lo-fi but fashionable video was future original MTV VJ Alan Hunter. Shot at the famous NYC nightclub Hurrah, where many of the U.K.’s Bowie-influenced post-punk bands played their first Stateside gigs, the video also featured John Lennon’s ex-girlfriend May Pang, who later married Bowie’s longtime production partner Tony Visconti.
"Let’s Dance” (1983)
Some music snobs dismissed Let’s Dance, the commercial high point of Bowie’s career and most blatantly mainstream album, as a “sellout.” It’s ironic, then, that the cinematic video for the LP’s title track was a pointed critique of Western imperialism, harrowingly juxtaposing a young Aboriginal couple’s struggles with racism, poverty, and oppression against a backdrop of sunny Australian hedonism. This certainly wasn’t typical high-gloss MTV fare, but the song still went to #1 on the U.S. charts. Even when Bowie “sold out,” he never sold himself or his vision short.
“China Girl” (1983)
This video’s racial references, when taken out of context, make this VMA-winning clip for an Iggy Pop remake seem a little dated and politically incorrect in 2016. But Bowie explained to Rolling Stone’s Kurt Loder in ‘83 that, much like the “Let’s Dance” video, “China Girl” was a “very simple, very direct” anti-racism statement, deliberately lampooning Asian female stereotypes. On a lighter note, the extended, uncensored version of the video featured Bowie’s bare, very perky bottom in the From Here to Eternity-inspired beach makeout scene – much to the delight of many smitten fans.
Jazzin’ for Blue Jean (1984)
Now an MTV megastar, Bowie was granted 21 minutes of the network’s precious airtime for the world premiere of Jazzin’ for Blue Jean, an ambitious, Julien Temple-directed short film starring yet another Bowie alter ego, the facepaint-contoured, turban-swathed Screaming Lord Byron. It all seems a little self-indulgent now – and Bowie playing a dual role as a dork named Vic is entirely unconvincing, because if there’s anything Bowie never was, it’s a dork. But for new wave fans 32 years ago, the televised “Blue Jean” film premiere was a popcorn-passing event as momentous as Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
“Day-In Day-Out” (1987)
Bowie reteamed with Temple here, and once again explored controversial social issues for this lead single from Never Let Me Down – in a raw video that depicted a young, desperate couple and their child dealing with poverty, violence, and sexual assault against a grim Los Angeles cityscape. (For some much-needed levity, there was also a scene with Bowie on rollerskates.) The video was hardly subtle, and it was banned by some TV stations at the time, but nearly 30 years later, its message hits home more than ever.
“Jump They Say” (1993)
MTV Video Vanguard honoree Mark Romanek is one of the greatest music video directors of all time, having lensed such iconic clips as Madonna’s “Bedtime Stories,” Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” and Fiona Apple’s “Criminal.” Bowie’s Romanek-lensed, Kubrickian “Jump They Say” unfortunately didn’t get quite as much exposure as those videos, despite being such an exquisitely art-directed widescreen stunner. But it was clear that even after Bowie’s 20-plus years in the spotlight, the camera still loved him.
“Little Wonder” (1997)
Director Floria Sigismondi, most famous for her envelope-pushing work with obvious Bowie descendent Marilyn Manson, cast a Ziggy Stardust lookalike in this futuristic yet nostalgic clip from Bowie’s experimental/electronica Earthling era. But the real Bowie was always the star of this show. Accept no imitators, ever.
“I’m Afraid of Americans” (1997)
Crazy-eyed Trent Reznor stalked David Bowie, Taxi Driver-style, through the mean streets of New York City, all set to an ominous soundtrack of modern-day xenophobia and heightened paranoia. Drama ensued, and the result was Bowie’s best video of his adventurous 1990s era. This clip was just a small part of a fruitful and historic cross-generation partnership between Bowie and the NIN mastermind, which included their ’95 co-headlining Outside Tour.
“The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” (2013)
In a bit of inspired casting on the part of returning director Sigismondi, this video by the Thin White Duke co-starred thin white duchess Tilda Swinton as his dutiful wife. For years, the uncanny resemblance between Bowie and the Oscar-winning actress had been noted by observers – so much so that an entire Tumblr site was devoted to their separated-at-birth similarity. In 2003, fashion photographer Craig McDean orchestrated a shoot with Tilda during which she dressed up as Bowie, and in 2012, Hint magazine even published a rather convincing compare-and-contrast blogpost titled “Visual Proof That David Bowie and Tilda Swinton Are the Same Person.” The fact that Bowie and Tilda appeared onscreen on the same time here refuted Hint’s theory – unless Sigismondi used some creative CGI, of course.
“The Next Day” (2013)
Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard, who displayed her own musical inclinations portraying Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose, made her finest music video cameo ever in this controversial, temporarily-banned-from-YouTube, Sigismondi-directed clip, in which she played a stigmata-stricken prostitute cavorting in a church brothel with a wayward priest played by Gary Oldman. Only someone as inventive and risk-taking as Bowie could still shock, awe, and provoke like this after all these years.
“Love Is Lost” (2013)
Proving that creativity need not come with a $400,000 pricetag, Bowie eschewed the big budgets of his other videos for this $12.99 bargain (yes, this video supposedly only cost twelve dollars and ninety-nine cents). Apparently all Bowie needed were a couple of creepy doppelganger puppets, a dimly lit office corridor, a free weekend, an assistant to turn on the camera, and a thumb drive to conjure pure video magic. Let’s see today’s Vine stars and YouTubers create something as amazing as this for 13 bucks.
This 10-minute epic for the title track of Bowie’s 25th (and, tragically, last) studio album was directed by Breaking Bad’s Johan Renck and starred a cast of living scarecrows, children of the corn, dead astronauts, and a blinded Bowie. It seemed like the most disturbing Bowie video yet… until the final one that followed, of course.
Jan. 8, 2016 was a day of celebration. It was Bowie’s 69th birthday; it was the release date for Blackstar, one of Bowie’s finest albums to date; and it brought us yet another stunning new music video, for “Lazarus.” But two days later, the celebration was over; Bowie was gone, and no one would ever see “Lazarus” the same way again. While the video depicted Bowie, his face bandaged, his eyes covered by buttons, his body gaunt and frail, writhing in pain on his deathbed, few viewers took it literally; Bowie was never one to shy away from dark or shocking imagery, after all, and it’s not unheard-of for any veteran artist to grapple with themes of sickness, aging, and mortality. But “Lazarus” was Bowie’s way of telling us he was dying, that he would soon be leaving us. This was his carefully orchestrated goodbye, his final act. The very thought of it is all at once magical and magnificent and upsetting and awful. “Lazarus” is definitely a must-watch. But you probably won’t be able to watch it more than once.