David Bowie died yesterday. And writing that sentence sucks. A lot. Those of you who’ve been reading the blog for a while or know me in real life know that I started my career in the music industry, first as a performer then migrating to the business side.
And Bowie was an immense influence for me. I remember converting a number of my friends into ardent Bowie fans way back in the early ’90’s by crafting finely-tuned mix tapes for each friend, offering songs that matched their own sensibilities before drawing them deeper into the iconic artist’s oeuvre. Cuts from Let’s Dance and Young Americans served as a gateway drug for my more pop-oriented friends. Headbangers and grunge-lovers got selections from Tin Machine, Ziggy Stardust, and Scary Monsters while the emo crowd got the Berlin trilogy pretty much uncut.
Bowie, like so many great artists, means many different things to many different people. He told generations of young people (and the young at heart) that it’s OK to be funky or soulful or spacy or trippy or emo—or all of those things all the same time. Fans flocked to him because he wasn’t talking about himself. He was talking about what mattered to them. Not in a pandering way. He earnestly cared about exploring who he was and where he was going and attracted others who felt the same way.
Despite his near constant reinvention, Bowie was always authentic to himself. It didn’t matter if we got the Thin White Duke or Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane or Pierrot, we always got the “real” Bowie, at least as he was at that moment.
Now, I suppose I should tie this to some sort of business lesson. After all, that’s what this blog is about. So, sure, you could say the same is true for great brands. Apple and Harley-Davidson and Tesla and insert your favorites here tend to do well with their fans by making presenting an authentic version of themselves and letting the people who want that find and share their story.
But here’s the thing. Customers—truly passionate, stark, raving fans—are never really talking about you or your brand. They’re talking about themselves. They’re talking about their problems, their needs, their goals, their hopes. Great artists (and, yes, great brands) understand that and don’t pander, don’t don’t fake it. They simply give their best, their authentic best, every single time.
That’s why I loved Bowie. And why I don’t want to make this about business today. I want to make it about art. And soul. And giving.
In “Oh! You Pretty Things,” Bowie sang:
I think about a world to come
Where the books were found
by the Golden ones
Written in pain, written in awe
By a puzzled man who questioned
What we were here for
The world lost a great, authentic artist. And the stars look very different today.