Gaga is the obvious starting point here, the pop star who never misses a Bowie shout out opportunity and, for a while, often walked around with a variation on Ziggy Stardust’s signature lightning bolt adorning her eye. Smith scoffs at what she’s said about him: “I look at Bowie as icon in art. It’s not just about the music. It’s about the performance, the attitude, the look; it’s everything. And that’s where I live as an artist…” But doesn’t that quote actually speak to how much she’s internalized Bowie’s approach? She collaborates with fashion designers and highbrow performers and visual artists. She realizes that true glamor means never allowing your fans to spot you in sweatpants. And, like Bowie’s, her aesthetic is about the juxtaposition of opposites, from high art and camp to beauty and ugliness. Since she’s only released roughly an album and a half, we don’t yet know how capable she is of transformation. But something tells us she’ll always have something up her fishnet sleeve.
We may be waiting to see whether Gaga can reinvent herself, but of Montreal mastermind Kevin Barnes has already proven he’s up to the challenge. The band may have started out as a sweet, retro, ’60s folk-pop throwback, but since the mid-’00s, Barnes has opened himself up to influences ranging from Prince to hip hop to dance music to Bowie himself, going so far as to enlist the help of producer Jon Brion for of Montreal’s recent album, False Priest. Like Bowie, he’s dramatized transformations (see 2007’s career highlight, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?), created over-the-top stage spectacles that put his contemporaries to shame, and tested the boundaries of identity, creating and embodying gender-fucked alter egos.
Barnes’s friend and frequent collaborator, Monáe is another artist who can’t be confined within the bounds of any genre, with influences ranging from hip hop to indie rock. Her debut full-length, The ArchAndroid, shows an obsession with futuristic, sci-fi storytelling and a facility for narrative concept albums that certainly recall Bowie. And let’s not even get started on her androgynous, suit-wearing charisma…
Perhaps the truest androgyne of the bunch, Antony and the Johnsons’s Hegarty doesn’t just wear dresses onstage; he identifies as transgender and incorporates those themes into his work. Like Bowie, his doesn’t confine himself to a single medium: A student and longtime participant in experimental theater, he has just released Swanlights , a project that integrates music and visual art. Collaborations, with new talent and older influences, have always been essential to Bowie’s music, and Hegarty is a master collaborator. He’s worked with everyone from Björk to Rufus Wainwright to Lou Reed, the man who provided major inspiration for Bowie’s early career. Now, he and Marina Abramović have come together to create an opera.
An international pop star who earned bubblegum fame as a teen but then reclaimed creative control and launched her career anew, Robyn represents one of the decade’s most successful transformations. Lately, for her Body Talk series, she’s flirted with cyborg fashion that we’re sure would meet with Bowie’s approval. And, like him, she brings the underground and mainstream pop together, refusing to pick a side and captivating fans of both.
Since Bowie has a reputation for decadence and Stevens is, famously, very Christian, it may seem counterintuitive to compare them. But what unites the two artists is their love for a great concept — not to mention their ability to move on from one once it’s run its course. While Bowie had identities (Ziggy Stardust, Thin White Duke), Stevens had his insanely ambitious states project and the stunning Brooklyn opus The BQE. Both also recently spent years dormant after long periods (in Bowie’s case, nearly four decades) of fervent creativity. Now that Sufjan’s back and better than ever, it’s Bowie’s turn.
The Arcade Fire
It isn’t just that this sprawling Canadian collective has Bowie’s seal of approval, although he did anoint The Arcade Fire by joining them onstage back in 2005. Although this indie crossover band can top the Billboard charts and sell out arenas, they live and work communally, just as Bowie did during his early career. But the real parallel is the epic scale Win Butler and co. work on, exploiting each concept, from booming religious fervor to quiet suburban lament, and then moving on. You may also notice that their wardrobe tends to match whatever musical period they’re going through.