Earthling is decidedly representative of its era.
For years, David Bowie was seen as a creative visionary, an artist who managed to see and channel the future in his music to produce something light years ahead of his peers. With his first brush with fame following the release of “Space Oddity” – a song that rose to popularity concurrently with the Apollo moon landing – Bowie found himself positioned as something of a rock ‘n’ roll futurist, a sci-fi oddity, as it were, who took this persona to new heights as Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and in his overblown, failed imagining of Orwell’s 1984 that resulted in Diamond Dogs. Here he largely prefigured the glam and punk rock movements, becoming a creative figurehead behind whom all others lined up on their way to the future of rock.
By the end of the ‘70s, he’d ditched the rock in favor of a more post-punk informed sound that again proved to be highly influential not only in his own Berlin Trilogy recordings, but also through his creative partnerships with the likes of Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Brian Eno and other forward-thinking rock ‘n’ roll outsiders. A stylistic chameleon, Bowie moved from one persona to the next, eventually embracing all-out pop by the 1980s. As the rest of the music world slowly began to catch on and catch up, Bowie’s own relevance seemed to wane as he found himself wandering through something of a creative wasteland. With Tin Machine having proved something of a non-starter and his post-Let’s Dance output devolving exponentially in quality content, the Bowie of the ‘90s was more of a cultural figure than relevant creative force.
To be sure, Bowie never truly surrendered his artistic vision to prevailing pop trends. But somewhere along the way he seemed to have lost sight of what had made his earlier work so groundbreaking and began toeing the line of post-grunge (Outside) and, with his next release, techno and jungle music. So after several lackluster albums of more of the same, 1997 saw Bowie shifting his focus once more. At a time when it seemed the future of music was headed in a decidedly electronic direction courtesy of the rising popularity of techno and IDM, Bowie again seemed to have positioned himself as something of a harbinger of what was to come as he delivered Earthling. Yet what seemed at the time to be the future of music ended up little more than a strange dead end, resulting in yet another strangely fascinating mess of ideas.
From the opening electronic squelches of lead single “Little Wonder” to the appropriately xenophobic “I’m Afraid of Americans,” Earthling offered a dystopian view of the future in a manner akin to that of Diamond Dogs. Like the latter, Earthling marked a stylistic shift in Bowie’s career, but it too failed to have the long-term impact of his more iconic albums. That Earthling proved to be an artistic dead end is no fault of Bowie’s, rather simply yet another attempt at continued relevancy as he kept looking to push himself forward in an industry increasingly disinterested with aging rock stars.
Listening back now, it’s hard to hear Earthling as anything more than a product of its time. Slotting in perfectly next to the Prodigy, Chemical Brothers and, to a lesser extent, Aphex Twin, Earthling shows Bowie feeling out his options within a new medium. That it never really takes off – save for “Little Wonder,” “Dead Man Walking” and the aforementioned “I’m Afraid of Americans” – has more to do with the time in which it was created than the music itself. Earthling is decidedly a product of the late-‘90s and has failed to age nearly as well as his earlier, far more influential works. That said, it offers an alternate view of what could have been had techno truly proved to be the future of music. Somewhat ironically, the scene several years later would show that the future of music lay in the past rather than any sort of new and/or exploratory new sounds.
So despite Earthling’s perceived failure both artistically and, certainly, commercially, it showed Bowie to continue to be an artist looking to lunge forward, looking to the future to find his next sound and approach. Yet much like 1984’s Tonight, Earthling is decidedly representative of its era, marking a very specific time in pop music history when the future seemed more fantastic than it ultimately proved to be.