David Bowie – the reclusive master of self-promotion

Opinion
Mark Borkowski

Mark Borkowski is founder and head of Borkowski PR. You can find him on Twitter @MarkBorkowski

It was this time three years ago when the release of a song sent shockwaves around the world, from Ibiza to the Norfolk broads. David Bowie marked his 66th birthday by giving his fans 'Where are we now?', a mysterious but somehow so familiar new single, his first in a decade.

The announcement of the album Next Day turned into a masterclass in understated PR (some would argue anti-PR). There was no promotion other than the music videos and only a handful of carefully selected journalists were briefed. The effect was electric. Rather than being an entertainment story the release of the song made the morning news headlines.

It wasn't so much that he was beyond the need for PR by 2013's Next Day but rather that he'd graduated onto a new level of self-promotion. Bowie spent his life snatching inspiration from a variety of sources - that voice from Anthony Newly, those moves from Lindsay Kemp, those sounds from Brian Eno - and in the process eclipsed his mentors. He became more than another star in the twinkly sky - he was a cultural supernova.

Throughout his a career he sucked in other blazing stars as collaborators, and no matter how big they were - ­Lou Reed, Freddie Mercury, Iggy Pop, David Lynch, Nicholas Roeg - he managed to dwarf them (only when he shared the screen with Marlene Dietrich in 1978's Just a Gigolo did he seem dumbstruck). To share the limelight with Bowie was to be shunted into the dark. He wasn't the chameleon he's so often described as but the environment against which all trends attempt to match.

He courted the press with striking imagery that spoke louder than words. It would be easy to point to any of his space-age baroque productions in that era to encapsulate his mastery for attention-grabbing artifice. But it is images such as the early 70s photograph of the Brixton boy visiting his ma and pa that capture Bowie's genius for media handling. As the press swarm streams over the back wall to his parents' council house, Bowie graciously leans out the window to sign an autograph. It's like a bastardised version of Michelangelo's Adam and God - with Bowie playing the role of the latter.

Bowie was of course never shy of the public - his embracing of the MTV mechanics of pop stardom show him as far from the retiring hermit - but he needed to be in total control of how they received his image.

The choice of the secret launch for Next Day displayed an acute understanding of the dynamics of fame in the teens. For those with a following gone are the days of doing what needs to be done to win over the media power brokers. Look at Beyoncé: she is 2015's most powerful female musician and hasn't given an interview since 2013. Bowie, whose work has always been defined by a myth-making aesthetic, ultimately allowed the idea of the reclusive, otherworldly spirit to stand in for more conventional ways of doing publicity. In an epoch that is enacted on social media Bowie allowed this myth to be leveraged through his channels and galvanised by fans.

The fact that the V&A's blockbuster David Bowie Is exhibition didn't come with the promotional soundbite or photocall was precisely what made it so compelling. His icon status was bigger than the man - it had become the history of style itself. In his passing it is the myth that lives on and it will continue to shape future generations of aesthetic misfits and taste rebels.