White soul and breaking the mold


With David Bowie’s recent passing we lost not only a pioneer performer but a visionary talent, and one of the most original voices in pop music history. And you can add to this list a man who wasn’t afraid to speak out against discrimination in the music world.

I recall as a youngster spending many beautiful, sunny afternoons indoors riveted to the set watching that upstart staple of 1980’s youth culture, Music Television. Sometime after variety shows but before YouTube, it was MTV that had the capability of bringing bands right into our living rooms. And in the early days of the station, there was no shortage of quirky videos by groups like the Buggles and Wall of Voodoo, straight-forward rock videos by veterans like Rolling Stones and the Who and unique, artsy videos by performers like the Talking Heads and of course, Bowie. But between the banter of the video jockeys (VJs) and videos of bands miming with their electric instruments on some beach or lip-syncing in front of some castle, something was conspicuously rare: videos by African-American artists.

And it was Mr. Bowie–this poster boy for glam rock, this gender-bending chameleon that shook up his musical style as often as his charismatic personas, this godfather of New Wave–who stuck up for black artists and actually called out MTV on the glaring inequality.

While being interviewed in 1983 by VJ Mark Goodman, Bowie asked him outright why there were “practically no blacks” on the network. He went on to point out that there were plenty of black artists making good videos and expressed his surprise that they weren’t on MTV. A clearly ruffled Goodman lamely countered with the explanation that the network had to please not only viewers in New York and Los Angeles “but also Poughkeepsie and the Midwest,” actually averring that some of the more conservative Americans might be “scared” by “a string of other black faces, or black music,” and then hinted that black artists might not fit into the station’s rock and roll format.

To his credit, Bowie didn’t buy this baloney and kept pressing Goodman, ultimately stating that it should be the conviction of the station to be fair and more integrated.

This was all the more impressive (read: gutsy) when you think that Bowie had little to gain by his outspokenness and perhaps something to lose. MTV had certainly been kind to him, more than happy to play his videos, and here he was openly criticizing the network and in essence accusing the bigwigs running the show of discrimination.  And in more ways than one, Bowie can certainly be credited with helping to bridge the racial and cultural gap in pop music. In his 1975 album “Young Americans,” for example, he showcased his love for American soul music and even performed on the iconic urban show “Soul Train.”

Even when I watch the clips now, I get such a kick out of seeing this very pasty English guy belt out his brilliant song “Fame” (and also the uber-funky “Golden Years”) on this traditionally black music program while everyone on the show–regardless of color–dances ecstatically to the infectious grooves. And like the Stones before him–who undoubtedly turned on more than a few suburban white kids to blues–Bowie almost certainly turned on many youths to soul with his own version of it–“plastic soul,” as he sometimes referred to it.

In the same year of Bowie’s MTV interview, the station (perhaps buckling under universal pressure) decided to regularly air the video for Michael Jackson’s hit “Billie Jean,” from his monster “Thriller” album. This was soon followed by the electric “Beat It” and it was then that the door began to truly open and let other African-American artists through.

This was good news for acts like Earth Wind and Fire, the Gap Band, Kool and the Gang and Rick James, who in particular had bitterly complained about the station’s refusal to play the video for his raunchy, ultra-catchy masterwork “Super Freak,” which had been enjoying almost endless airplay on the radio, in nightclubs, skating rinks, record stores and just about everywhere else there was a turntable or boom box handy.

Now it is tough to say whether Bowie’s on-air candor had anything to do with the network ultimately playing more videos by African-American artists, but I like to think Bowie publicly giving the station a black eye could only have helped to drive the point home.

When it was time start recording his 15th studio album for a spring 1983 release, Bowie decided to recruit Nile Rodgers, a founding member of the funk-soul-disco outfit Chic, to handle co-production duties. An African-American musician, Rodgers had expressed excitement at working with someone like Bowie, if nothing else, to show that black artists can also make their imprint in New Wave music and let white audiences know that they could create songs whose themes went beyond making love or dancing. (Though there must have been a smidge of comical irony when Rodgers found out that two of the first songs they’d be working on were called “Modern Love” and the title track “Let’s Dance.”) The finished album featured a sound that was cutting edge yet danceable and became the best-selling disc of his career, proving the Bowie-Rodgers collaboration a successful one.

I remember first seeing the video for “Let’s Dance,” and muttering to myself: “Who’s this weird dude playing the guitar with white gloves, and how can he even sing without really opening his mouth?” But his voice struck me, as I couldn’t recall hearing anyone that sounded quite like that. And as I got older and discovered through Bowie’s many albums how he continued to experiment and reinvent himself and his music while challenging us at the same time, I came to consider him one of the coolest guys, well, on our planet.

He was an innovator and a paradox–a constant in our lives yet the furthest thing from being constant. As the androgynous Ziggy Stardust, or the stylish Thin White Duke or the front man of hard-rocking Tin Machine, he left his indelible imprint on every decade. He invented era-defining looks and donned direction-setting fashions, and even though he soaked up all sorts of sounds and influences throughout the years–black and white alike–one thing was certain: he was a complete original.

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