Pop Culture

David Bowie: 'Weirdo' Broke Down Barriers, Inspired Legions

David Bowie, rock legend, dies of cancer at age 69 - a look at his legacy 3:42

His immediately identifiable voice urged listeners to "Turn and face the strange" — and for decades that's exactly what David Bowie's music did.

The music legend died Sunday, two days after turning 69 and releasing his latest album, "Blackstar," to widespread acclaim.

But beyond a massive catalog of hits, Bowie left behind a legacy of breaking down barriers in music and beyond. He was the best weirdo out there — and made being one OK for legions.

"Almost every young person who thinks of themselves as an outcast or a freak ... could identify with one of Bowie's personae," music critic Paul Gambaccini told NBC News. "He was continually shocking us with the 'new.'"

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He's been billed as an innovator who brought the notion of "the other" into the mainstream: from Warhol-type imagery to science fiction, androgyny and bisexuality. Bowie's costumes and gender-bending personas — from Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane — consistently pushed the envelope.

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"Almost everything he did turned to gold," Gambaccini said. "When it didn't turn to gold at least it was interesting."

Bowie's ability to constantly reinvent himself musically and visually earned him the reputation of a shape shifter and more. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted the star in 1996, called him "rock's foremost futurist and a genre-bending pioneer, chameleon and transformer."

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron described the British-born Bowie as a "genius" and the "master of reinvention."

"One of the things that is so incredible is almost all his reinventions were incredible successes," Cameron added.

To Bowie, though, it was about more than music and success. He told Rolling Stone in a 1976 interview that he had always had a "repulsive sort of need" to be "something more than human" and keep changing.

"I've got nothing to do with music," he told the interviewer. "I've always interpreted or played roles with my songs."

His final act — the album "Blackstar" — was received as further proof that Bowie was like no other.

"The Man Who Fell to Earth has made an entire career of defying terrestrial categories and classification," wrote Entertainment Weekly in its review. "As much as Bowie the Artist can be defined, it's only in the most elusive terms: He is our eternal iconoclast, he is stardust, he is normcore Kryptonite."

Bowie's celebration of the weird and "other" in the roles he chose inspired and influenced legions of contemporary artists from Katy Perry to Lady Gaga, who once called Bowie an "alien prince" who "runs my universe."

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"Every morning I wake up and I think, 'What would Bowie do?'" Gaga told British TV personality Alan Carr in a 2006 interview.

Recording artist Janelle Monae, who took on the daunting task of covering Bowie's classic "Heroes," said she too was drawn to his timelessness.

"He's transcendent," she told Rolling Stone. "He's a true time traveler."

That scope was felt further than radio airwaves, across film and television. Actor Mark Ruffalo summed up the impact in a Twitter tribute after news of Bowie's death, calling him the "father of all us freaks."

Part of Bowie's appeal across generations was his focus on being an outsider — making it acceptable if not desirable to be a weirdo.

"My entire career, I've only really worked with the same subject matter," Bowie told The Associated Press in a 2002 interview. "The trousers may change, but the actual words and subjects I've always chosen to write with are things to do with isolation, abandonment, fear and anxiety — all of the high points of one's life."

Those subjects resonated deeply — and fans were quick to praise how Bowie's message shaped their lives.

"The world lost an icon of mythological proportions," wrote director Peter Atencio. "When I first realized I was a weirdo David Bowie was the first person who made me feel like I might belong somewhere."

He added: "I don't know that I've ever felt this strongly about the passing of someone I never met, but merely worshipped from afar."

Today's musicians — from Gaga to Madonna — also owe a great deal to Bowie, according to Rolling Stone contributing editor Joe Levy.

"Would we have Madonna… without David Blowie to blaze a trail for her? Probably not," he told NBC's TODAY.

He called the artist's last album a fitting "testament" to his achievements. It also feels like a farewell.

"Look up here, I'm in heaven. I've got scars that can't be seen. I've got drama, can't be stolen, everybody knows me now," the lyrics from the album's first single, "Lazarus," read. "This way or no way you know, I'll be free just like that bluebird now ain't that just like me."

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