In January, the sea of tributes that poured in for the passing of pop music’s most illustrious icon served to remind us just how unforgettable his legacy is. In the aftermath, both the Grammy and BRIT Award Ceremonies featured an inevitable but fitting David Bowie tribute. Both featured a montage of music performed by two of his aspiring heirs, but each had different focal points. As it may be expected, the American tribute was rushed and gimmicky at points, where the British tribute was personal, emotional and tasteful. Most importantly, whilst the Grammy performance was certainly fun, it seemed to forget its purpose. Wednesday night’s BRIT Awards’ tribute was inescapably about the man who provided us with so much art, inspiration and mystery, making it by far the better of the two.
With much excitement and anticipation, I watched Lady Gaga’s tribute to Bowie supported by Nile Rodgers at the Grammy Awards Ceremony earlier this month. As an artistic descendant of the Bowie tradition in many ways, Lady Gaga was an appropriate choice, and her performance was admirable. Nile Rodger’s presence added some authenticity due to his history of working with Bowie, most notably, having co-produced his best-selling album, Let’s Dance. Nevertheless, the performance received some criticism, encouraging Nile Rodgers to enter the twitter debate on the defensive.
Many artists and tributes were performed, we did what we thought and still think was right in our short time slot. x https://t.co/NottaU93am
— Nile Rodgers (@nilerodgers) February 17, 2016
Following an awfully brief introduction, Lady Gaga emerged red-haired and prepared for an overly-ambitious, and frankly quite exhausting, 6 minute performance. In this short time, Gaga belted out nine songs with transitions far from smooth. Attempts to squeeze in a multitude of Bowie’s characters were undermined by the overemphasis on one. Ziggy Stardust is undeniably Bowie’s most memorable character having projected him into stardom with the album release in the summer of 1972. But, Bowie killed off this character only a year after he landed from Mars. In doing so, he taught a valuable lesson to all artists: the need to evolve and develop. With a third of the songs performed coming from that one album, this lesson seems to have been forgotten.
Impressively, the performance incorporated many special effects from projections of spiders from Mars, to a keyboard with moving legs reminiscent of the Glass Spider Tour. But these effects were sometimes gimmicky in a way that only the later 80s Bowie of that infamous tour may have condoned. It’s hard to argue that Bowie would have liked it – his son snidely suggested that he didn’t – and ultimately, it was more a performance of his songs and the characters he created, than a personal tribute.
I was reminded of this somewhat forgettable performance when I watched the BRIT Awards’ tribute from Wednesday night’s ceremony precisely because they addressed all of these points. The majority of the 15 minutes allocated to the tribute featured a verbal obituary from his inspired contemporary, Annie Lennox, and some personal stories from a close friend. Trembling with emotion, Gary Oldman expressed his grief and shared anecdotes in memory of the man’s hilarious but illusive personality that remained a mystery throughout his career. Goosebumps reverberated around the arena as Oldman spoke of Bowie’s courage, dignity and grace when facing the cancer that eventually killed him.
The eulogy was followed by a tasteful instrumental compilation of Bowie’s songs that required no vocals because they were oh so familiar to our ears. Behind the musicians, but very much in the foreground, a montage of Bowie’s endless and diverse images, reminding us what the performance was really about. Choosing Lorde to sing for an emotional rendition of ‘Life on Mars’ was fitting not only because Bowie had worked with her so recently, but also because he called her ‘the voice of tomorrow’. Accounts that recently emerged of David Bowie’s rejection of artists as big as Dave Grohl, Coldplay and Red Hot Chili Peppers who requested his collaboration, makes such an endorsement priceless. Supporting the inkling that Bowie would have appreciated this tribute, his son, Duncan Jones, expressed gratitude over twitter on the night. With its tasteful and patient manner, the tribute served as the necessary British farewell to the man who fell to earth and has since inspired innumerable changes to our culture.
What the Grammy tribute failed to realise is that on January 10th, the mortal David Jones died, but the characters he created and works of art he produced are eternal. In effect, the Grammy tribute felt like more of a news hook than a tribute. By contrast, the BRIT Award’s tribute was about a mortal with potential of a superman who left us with an incomparable body of work and legacy reaching its 3rd generation as we speak. In avoiding the gimmicks and excitement at the Grammys, the BRIT awards reminded us that this was a time to respect and honour the man and his work. We have an eternity to get excited about it.
*This article was corrected on 20/03/2016. Apologies for the error