Panel Recap: Stardust – David Bowie’s Lasting Influence on Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror
The room was abuzz with anticipation. David-Bowie-loving con guests talked amongst themselves, excitedly trading ideas about what would be discussed at a panel about Bowie’s influence over the genres they love.
Then the panelists began singing “The Man Who Sold the World.” It only took a few lines before the audience joined in, turning a simple, beige conference room into a wonderland of magical notes.
As the first verse came to a close in the transformed room, the panel began. The panel moderator, Evan J. Peterson (author and teacher), introduced himself, followed by Grace Moore (podcaster), and Sara Depp (musician).
Evan explained that the panel would focus on Bowie’s influence on visual content, such as film and television, although his music would be touched upon as well.
Bowie is the only musician to date who is in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame, Evan began. Although other musicians certainly played with using science fiction in their music, Bowie truly pioneered the sub-genre of sci-fi music.
Of course, no discussion of Bowie and sci-fi would be complete without mentioning the film, The Man Who Fell to Earth. It was his best known sci-fi film and is still well loved. Filled with cyclical storytelling and non-linear plots, this poetic film exists outside of traditional narrative structures, which differs from many other popular films in the genre.
Sara, who made my heart flutter with the amount of research she had done on the subject, mentioned that The Man Who Fell to Earth was based on a book, but very few people remember that fact. She believes that this is because Bowie’s performance is so powerful that it overpowered its source material.
One thing that the whole panel could agree on was that Bowie has had an influence on the future of the genre.
“He made sci-fi glamorous again,” Grace said, in reference not just to Bowie’s music, but his public persona as well.
Evan agreed and said that “He approached his work like a fan.” In fact, Bowie called his character Ziggy Stardust a “rag bag.” What he meant was that many different influences were synthesized into one character. In that way, he combined elements of pop culture, history, etc. to create something original.
“He was a pop culture alchemist,” Grace said.
Bowie was not afraid to play into his own mythology as well. A great example of this is the cover of the album Scary Monsters. Although Bowie’s eyes are not actually two different colors (one simply dilated differently after the young musician was injured in a fight), he had the artist paint them that way on the album’s cover. In this way, he leaned into the mythology that was created around him. As Grace said, “Sometimes life gives you lemons and you turn those into your signature look.”
The second large contribution to science fiction the panel highlighted was Bowie’s album, Diamond Dogs. This was supposed to be a concept album of George Orwell’s book 1984, but he wasn’t able to secure the rights. He went ahead with the project anyway, simply using the book for inspiration without the specifics, and created one of the most elaborate stage shows to date.
In this way, he yet again fused his interests. He created a dystopian world both sonically and visually that the viewer could move through and experience whether live or from the comfort of their home.
Evan lead us into this section by briefly touching on fantasy’s influence on Bowie’s music. All the way back to Hunky Dory, Bowie makes references to magic, the occult, Aleister Crowley, tarot, etc. These references weave in and out of his work, even while he’s exploring other themes. In many ways, he played into being a fantasy element himself and placed it into his music.
Mark Bolan from Tyrannosaurus Rex and Bowie were in a bit of a competition to see who could create more magical art. The biggest difference between the two artists is that Bowie was more occult based and Bolan focused on “unicorns and high fantasy.”
It didn’t take long before the conversation turned to Labyrinth. Though arguably his most famous contribution to the fantasy genre, Labyrinth was not well received when it debuted. However, over the years, it has found its audience and is one of the most beloved movies of the era.
Labyrinth, as Evan pointed out, is a very subversive text. When boiled down to its bones, it’s about a teenage girl in a problematic relationship with an older man. From the beginning of the story, she fantasizes about him, hoping that he’ll come and save her from her current life.
In reference to Bowie’s character, Sara shared quote she was unable to attribute, but that perfectly encapsulates his performance: “Bowie was the perfect figure to inspire desire and loathing.” There is a complexity, Sara continued, to the character because he is a bad person, a baby stealer, but the girl is still attracted to him. There is something magnetic even though you know you should pull away.
Evan agreed: “The plot is about a young woman who asks the Goblin king to steal her brother. Their relationship is toxic and fascinating and complex and all inside a kid’s movie.”
Bowie was the body of work, Evan expressed as this section of the panel drew to a close. The artist was David Jones, but the “Bowie Project,” as Evan called it, came to be after four to five decades of work.
When it comes to Davie Bowie and horror, the logical place to start is the 1983 film The Hunger. Thought to be his biggest contribution to horror, Evan called the film “murder a gogo.”
Bowie reinvents familiar territory as he plays another other-worldly character. This time he dives in fully to create a terrifying vampire character that departs from his other creations through harsher, more horrific character choices. In this film, Bowie is not afraid to be ugly and terrifying.
When it comes to horror in Bowie’s work as a musician, look no further than the album Outside. A collaboration between Bowie and producer Brian Eno, Outside is a gothic, industrial, jazz album peppered with disturbing character monologues performed by Bowie.
His next album, Earthling, returns to a focus on science fiction, but is still tinged with horror, especially in the songs “I’m Afraid of Americans” and “Earthlings on Fire.” This album was originally planned as a sequel to Outside, but morphed as it was developed.
THERE IS A STARMAN
At times, I am overwhelmed by the unique creativity and imagination of David Bowie. His contribution to music is undeniable, yet his gifts to these “geeky” genres is equally as lasting. Bowie’s love of the weird and wonderful endears him to me; I feel more connected to the man and less intimidated by the idol.
David Bowie was a fan just like me, just like us. His passion and excitement for storytelling was a constant reminder that we can all create and when we are in need for inspiration, to look to the stars.