Tuesday, January 19, 2016

David Bowie: Queer Messiah

News last week of the death of David Bowie has generated a lot of comments from people about how, in the 1970s and '80s, the singer and entertainer had helped them accept themselves as LGBT and/or queer people.

This despite the fact that, as Tasmin Wilton notes in The Queer Encyclopedia of Music, Dance and Musical Theater, Bowie's significance for queer culture is deeply contradictory."

For one thing, writes Wilton, Bowie's "claims to be gay or bisexual were almost certainly never anything other than a publicity-seeking gambit."

Continues Wilton:

It seems to have been Bowie's then manager, Ken Pitt, who decided to play the gay card. He arranged for Jeremy, the only gay publication in Britain at the time, to publish an article about Bowie in January 1970. This was followed in 1972 by an interview for Melody Maker in which the singer stated, "Yes, of course I'm gay, and always have been." In a 1976 Playboy interview he declared himself bisexual rather than gay.

Such published statements were combined with onstage antics such as fellating Mick Ronson's guitar [right] and some very public homoerotic partying with Mick Jagger, Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop. But Bowie's appropriation of a gay persona always existed alongside explicit warnings from the star himself that nothing he said was to be believed.

In 1971, he cautioned, "My songwriting is certainly not an accurate picture of how I think at all." This is just as well, since close analysis of Bowie's "gay" lyrics reveals little gay pride. Lady Stardust sings "songs of darkness and disgrace"; the gay seducer in "Aladdin Sane" has a "tongue swollen with devil's love," and after he "smelt the burning pit of fear" (you don't need to be Freud to spot an anal metaphor here!), the protagonist knows he will never "go down to the Gods again."

Wilton believes that it was an "indication of the repressive invisibility of gayness in 1970s Britain that, however cynical and (arguably) homophobic Bowie's flirtation with queer sexuality, it is remembered as liberating and exhilarating by many gay [people] in both the United Kingdom and the United States."

I can't say that I personally found any aspect of Bowie's musical career to be liberating. This was because in the singer's heyday I was too young to recognize, let alone appreciate (or rather project a liberating message onto) either his music or his various stage personas. I would, however, discover a sense of authentic liberation (as both a gay man and an aspiring integrated human being) years later in the music of Kate Bush, Dusty Springfield and Buffy Sainte-Marie.

That being said, it's undeniable that for many, many people, David Bowie was very much a queer messiah. The following testimonies bear witness to this.

The death of David Bowie feels somehow apocalyptic. I'm sure this is true for many queers for whom Bowie was the first outspoken and shameless sexual libertine in the rarified pop culture strata. He was the embodiment of glamour, talent, and a new kind of personal expression. Bowie inspired countless people to take personal risks which led them to their own forms of self-actualization. In the same way Holly, Candy, and Jackie – the Warhol Superstars – helped to liberate many trans feminine persons of that era, David Bowie liberated the gay, the bisexual, and the androgyne. Bowie was not an activist in the traditional sense and it's important to keep in perspective that it was the real disenfranchised trans women of color, flamboyant queens, dykes and gay men who brought the fight to the streets and changed the world on our behalf. But as a visionary and groundbreaking artist, Bowie provided a soundtrack and visuals which reshaped our world. He was a true Rock God.

Justin Vivian Bond
January 11, 2016

In the days since his death, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender fans have shared how the rocker influenced their lives and helped bring queer culture into the mainstream in the 1960s and 1970s. In essays, interviews, on Twitter and on Facebook, they told how his rise gave them strength.

Many saw a kindred spirit in Mr. Bowie’s various characters and gender-bending style, beginning with his first androgynous persona, Ziggy Stardust, in 1972. Not only had he made a glittery, alien-looking creature look cool, he had helped pioneer a sexy (and marketable) form of otherness that mainstream artists have tried to replicate in the decades since.

“In high school, Ziggy Stardust blasted confidence into my ears and said, ‘See, it’s O.K. to be different and strange and you are wonderful,’” wrote John Barlow, a Times reader from Atlanta. “Feeling those sentiments was important, especially as a gay youth who was not out at the time.”

The edginess of Mr. Bowie’s style earned him fast stardom and the freedom to play with gender and sexuality. He retired the Ziggy character, but continued to play with his image in a way that forced his viewers to rethink ideas of gender.

– Katie Rogers
Excerpted from "Was He Gay, Bisexual or Bowie? Yes"
The New York Times
January 13, 2016

It may seem odd to a generation now – for whom gay pride comes with its own multi-letter acronym, LGBT – that a pop star could so radically collide and shatter traditional norms around sexuality and gender. But David Bowie did just that in the early 1970s and the challenge that he set, in terms of confronting definitions of sexuality and images of masculinity, prove as fresh today as they did then.

Coming out as I did in Britain of the late 1980s, gay men in their 30s and 40s would talk about what a revolutionary marker, a personal lightning strike, Bowie had been for them as boys and teenagers in the 1970s. Lou Reed walking on the wild side had also had his effect, but Bowie, as Ziggy Stardust, had quite literally beamed in from another planet.

According to author and cultural critic Mark Simpson, Bowie’s appearance on UK primetime institution Top of the Pops in 1972 singing ‘Starman’ “and his calculated draping of his fey arm around his gorgeous guitarist Mick Ronson was probably the most important ‘Gay Parade’ that ever happened in the UK.”

– Tim Teeman
Excerpted from "How David Bowie Sexually Liberated Us All"
The Daily Beast
January 11, 2016

[My girlfriend] introduced me to her love of Bowie while hanging out at her place in Columbia Heights. Posters of his 1995 tour with Nine Inch Nails adorned the walls, and her Facebook profiles featured pictures of her at Bowie-esque Glam-Rock costume parties. She'd shared a ton of music with me before, but this went in a different direction. She had me lay back, close my eyes, and listen from the beginning that was "Space Oddity."

I was hooked then and there on that song about isolation and separation sung by a fellow queer person. As I continued to listen to song after song, I tried to guess when each was released. 1979? No, 1975. 1983? No, 1979. After missing the same way again and again, I realized that where Bowie went, pop music followed several years later. He struck me as a Nikolai Tesla-like figure: a genius in his field so far ahead of everyone else that no one could see it until many years later.

Still, this wasn't the important part.

She walked me through the personas of his early years. "I love how he plays with androgyny," she often commented, "there's something really beautiful and attractive about it." I refused to see at first, but as my own internalized transphobia ebbed a bit, it opened a window enough that I could see it too.

It wasn't just beautiful, it was amazing. Sexy and empowering in a way that said his bucket of fucks to give was empty long ago. From there, it wasn't that far a leap to accepting that queerness itself, in all its million shades, can be beautiful, sexy, and powerful too. Coming from a place where queerness was the antithesis of love, acceptance, and beauty, this paradigm shift was nothing short of radical and life changing, because I felt I could be all of these too.

– Brynn Tannehill
Excerpted from "David Bowie and My Queer Awakening"
HuffPost Gay Voices
January 12, 2016

Bowie, in sound and vision, was the consummate outsider; a rock star who redefined what a rock star could be.

Bowie demonstrated that a man could grow his hair, wear a dress and face full of make-up, and still be regarded as the coolest pop star on the planet.

Bowie talked about being bisexual and his career didn’t bomb. Bowie not only demonstrated that it was OK to be different, he was living proof that it was positively advisable.

It’s difficult today to grasp quite how powerful a message that was when he first rose to prominence in the 1970s, or the life-affirming influence it had on generations of LGBTI youth: Keep changing and pushing at boundaries; experiment and dress up; ignore those who tell you how you should live; don’t be afraid to re-invent yourself.

– David Hudson
Excerpted from "David Bowie Not Only Showed That It Was OK
to Be Different But Positively Advisable
Gay Star News
January 11, 2016

It’s true that for me as a teenager growing up in Iowa, Bowie embodied the archetype of the misunderstood queer messiah . . . although the salvation he promised was based on rock music (Ziggy Stardust) or alien technology (in The Man Who Fell to Earth). The inspiration that I found in Bowie became the foundation for my later understanding of the queer Christ.

My vocation now is to write about LGBTQ spirituality and the arts, and Bowie had all three aspects when I was a teen searching for role models: a cool queer persona, an artistic sensibility and strong visual style, and what I perceived as a subtle spiritual quality.

– Kittredge Cherry
Excerpted from "RIP David Bowie: Queer Messiah Figure
of LGBT Liberation, Music and Art
Jesus in Love Blog
January 14, 2016

For so many gay men, the first pangs of childhood shame have actually nothing to do with an attraction to other boys and everything to do with the emergence of certain traits often described as "feminine." Not all gay men are "girly," that’s true. But I was. I remember drawing on my hand with pastel bubbly pens before a particularly joyless middle school Latin teacher pulling me aside to tell me that that’s something that only girls do, and ordering me to wash it off. I scrubbed my skin so furiously with hot water that it hurt.

For so many, it’s only much later in life that you discover that feeling girly – indeed feeling all shades of the gender rainbow – can be wonderful, no matter who you choose to sleep with or how you were born. If you’re like me, the eventual embrace of the traits that you were once told to hate was helped along, in no small way, by David Bowie. When I discovered Bowie a little later in high school, he was the first person I can recall doing the opposite of what that teacher did: he made being a girly boy seem not just brave, but pretty cool, too.

. . . If gayness were a church, I’d say we make Bowie one of its anointed saints. I cannot quantify precisely the effect he has had on the increasing visibility of gay and trans peoples throughout the world, but there are few figures, at least in the influential world of pop culture, that I’d give more credit to for expanding the boundaries of what we think of as beautiful.

Through my sadness, I keep remembering that he does not have to be alive for some fresh new 16-year-old boy – or girl, or girl wanting to be a boy, or boy wanting to be a girl, or some person who in fact has no gender at all – to discover Bowie, and help whomever needs it to reimagine that not so long after that part of queer life that seems like hell, it will feel like heaven.

– Alex Frank
Excerpted from "In Memory of My Great Gay Saint, David Bowie"
January 11, 2016

[w]e for whom queerness is not a phase seem to have two options in terms of how we deal with Bowie’s fraught relationship to our name and our stuff. We can be pissed off and view his career as, at least in part, an act of sly cultural appropriation – one of many that pop has committed at our expense over the years. Or, more generously, we can allow that even if Bowie was not really sexually queer (gay, bi, or otherwise), he was one of the most culturally queer artists to grace this earth.

I’m partial to the latter view. As I wrote at length in 2015, I believe that cultural gayness is something that can and does exist apart from homosexuality. Gays may have developed the set of cultural practices that define gayness, or what some call the “gay sensibility” or “gay aesthetics,” but they need not be its only practitioners. Indeed, straight people (or whatever Bowie might have been) are theoretically just as capable of doing cultural gayness as gays are – and indeed, some may do it better. As a veritable innovator of gay style, Bowie would seem to be a natural fit in this category; you can’t appropriate what you help create. He may have bucked or played coy with identity labels – presaging our modern situation quite well – but, especially at the beginning of his career, he was recognizably “gay.” Culturally speaking, I think it’s a label he deserves.

Of course, Bowie’s legitimacy as a gay artist may not quell misgivings about his politics: As much as he enjoyed our clubs, he was apparently not terribly interested in gay liberation as a political project in the 1970s. And his typical swagger sometimes produced a strange blend of homophobia and misogyny when applied to real “queens” – particularly in that Playboy interview, in which he jokes about knowing “how to keep happy” in prison, treating his boys “like real ladies,” and having a predilection for young Japanese men who “are all queens until they reach 25.” However much of this you are willing to forgive as working-class-rock-star-before-PC bluster is a personal call; it complicates my feelings to a degree.

But then, artists as visionary as Bowie are necessarily complicated – they probably wouldn’t be very good otherwise. For myself, I think I will choose to remember Bowie as a peculiar – and incredibly effective – drag queen. The flood of obituaries and remembrances today form a chorus of praise for Bowie’s shifting self-presentation, his chameleon-like ability to revise his artistic identity in conversation with the zeitgeist. These are all nice ways of saying he understood drag—an art form arising from the fundamental (and hard-learned, for queer people) principle that we are all always performing and that masks are often a necessity in this life. Drag also draws its power from the world-changing potential of juxtaposition, of the jolt that’s generated when fishnet swaddles hairy thigh, when rock ‘n’ roll rigidity reclines upon chaise lounge, when expectation stumbles over reality.

– J. Bryan Lowder
Excerpted from "Was David Bowie Gay?
On the Singer's Complicated Relationship with Queerness
January 11, 2016


Although I can't say I was ever a huge fan of David Bowie, I can say I have a favorite song of his. And that's "Ashes to Ashes," from his 1980 album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).

Related Off-site Links:
"Thank You, Mr. Bowie. You Changed Our Lives" – Sona Patel (The New York Times, January 13, 2016).
David Bowie, as Remembered by Deborah Harry, Kate Bush, Carlos Alomar, and OthersThe Guardian (January 17, 2016).
"When I Joined the NME in the '70s, Bowie Was an Obsession" – Neil Spencer (The Guardian, January 17, 2016).
David Bowie: Invisible New Yorker – Steven Kurutz (The New York Times, January 16, 2016).
Vatican Marks David Bowie’s Passing By Praising Him – Bob Shine (Bondings 2.0, January 12, 2016).
David Bowie Had Sex with Underage Girls. Is That Creepy or Cool? – Julie Burchill (The Spectator, January 15, 2016).


Kittredge Cherry said...

Your article helped me see that I am not alone in seeing Bowie as a queer messiah. Thanks for including me in your excellent overview! I'm going to add a link back to this piece.

Nathan said...

Excellent article. I imagine as a youngster David was beyond the illuminated billboard, broadcasting me secret messages of acceptance. "There's a taste in my mouth and it's no taste at all"