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A trailblazer of pop culture

As someone who is 26 going on 27, I should not be into David Bowie, even if I did come to love his music much later in life, when he was arguably past his prime.

"Prime" is subjective, of course, because he had always remained the ultimate chameleon, breaking boundaries in artistic expression and stereotypes in fashion.

He was doing avant-garde and androgyny before it was acceptable or cool. He was daring, he was eccentric and, most of all, he was a trailblazer.

My first brush with him was at age 12, as I watched Heath Ledger bust a choreographed routine to a funky, bass-slapping tune in A Knight's Tale (2001).

All I remember then was thinking, "What a tune, I need to find out what this song is."

In the days before Shazam or SoundHound, I had to write the lyrics down. I remember going to the school computer laboratory the next day to search the lyrics hoping to find a hit - and I did.

The track was Golden Years.

That was my introduction to Soul Train-era Bowie.

I had thought funk and soul belonged to Earth Wind & Fire, but here was this skinny white man, a Brit with one green and one blue eye, who made me want to hear more of where that came from.

At 15, I got my first taste of Space Oddity, in a hilarious episode of the HBO comedy series Flight Of The Conchords, in which Brett McKenzie and Jemaine Clement parodied Bowie's musical styles in a fantasy sequence that transpires in outer space. That began my exploration of Major Tom-era Bowie.

I saw the music video only when I was much older, but the reed-thin, pale Bowie, with his shock of red hair, challenged my idea of a pop star. Remember that the early 2000s was an era when we were bombarded with images of boybands and scantily clad teenage ingenues.

Bowie's lyrics ("Planet earth is blue, and there's nothing I can do") resonated with me far more than the vapid "She's so lucky, she's a star".

Subsequently, I had brushes with the Starman waiting in the sky, ch-ch-changes and the man who sold the world.

Like a true classic, both the man and his song continued to remain relevant and interesting, as the Britney Spears and the Spice Girls of the world faded into obscurity.

In the summer of 2013, I remember spending three hours at David Bowie Is, a retrospective exhibition of his extraordinary career at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

With a soundtrack curated by Tony Visconti, Bowie's long-time collaborator and record producer, it was a mammoth, 300-piece collection of his handwritten lyrics, costumes, interviews, album artworks, original paintings and everything in between; with Bowie's tunes playing on the headphones that you had to wear throughout, changing according to your pace and your location as you walked from one room to another.

It was three years ago, but I remember some things vividly - a sequinned masterpiece of a Ziggy Stardust bodysuit by Freddie Burretti, Space Oddity playing as I entered the section named after the song.

The exhibition showed just how much of an influence he had over pop culture in the 21st century and it was pop culture that filtered through to a kid all the way in Singapore.

Ziggy Stardust, Major Tom, Aladdin Sane, Thin White Duke - every alter ego of the man born David Jones was captured through sketches, reams of handwritten notes and music videos.

Without Bowie, there would not be the Lady Gagas or the Janelle Monaes of this world.

Gaga painted his trademark Ziggy Stardust lightning bolt on her face during the early part of her career, while Monae emulates his androgynous style in her dressing, donning bow ties and tailcoats.

At 23, I watched a moment of iconic cinema in The Perks Of Being A Wallflower (2012), as Emma Watson's character Sam stood up in the back of a pickup truck driving through a tunnel with the radio blasting Bowie's Heroes. It was as memorable as John Cusack holding a 1980s boombox above his head, playing Peter Gabriel's In Your Eyes in Say Anything (1989) .

It reminded me of how I discovered the Berlin Trilogy-era Bowie, one of his most fertile music-making periods. I made a mental note to visit the Hansa studio in Berlin where he recorded the three albums - Low, Heroes and Lodger - on my next visit to the German capital. It would now be a pilgrimage of sorts - and all the more poignant one at that.

When Nile Rodgers' Chic performed here at the Kallang Theatre two years ago, they dropped a cover of Bowie's floor filler Let's Dance. It was 1980s Bowie, still relevant and fresh-sounding, and a track that made everyone dance in rapture.

Bowie has never quite left me, simply because his influence on pop culture is all encompassing.

He released 25 albums in total, including four in the 2000s. But none has quite impacted me in the same way his earlier material such as Heroes (1977) or Aladdin Sane (1973) has.

I suppose it is time to say goodbye Ziggy Stardust, Major Tom and Aladdin Sane. But most of all, goodnight, David Bowie. "Check ignition, and may God's love be with you."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2016, with the headline 'A trailblazer of pop culture'. Print Edition | Subscribe