The Gender Politics of David Bowie
By Larry Jaffee
David Bowie embodied the fictional character of “Ziggy Stardust” for only about 18 months circa 1972-1973. Yet it’s usually an image of that garishly made up, flamboyantly dressed androgynous creature adorning t-shirts when one thinks of the musician.
While he might have not realized it at the time, Bowie, who died on Jan. 10 after an 18-month battle with cancer, anticipated today’s continuing gender binary dialogue. Besides leaving behind an impressive body of music that rarely was commercial (“Let’s Dance” a notable exception) and mostly experimental, perhaps Bowie’s greatest achievement was opening people’s minds to sexual identity expression.
Bowie’s death two days after his 69th birthday resulted in an outpouring of grief, especially on social media, as both fans and celebrities paid tribute to his artistic vision that subsequently empowered others who felt different.
Here’s my theory: Bowie adopted a fey epicene persona in the early 1970s merely as a marketing ploy to gain media attention; it worked.
Perhaps he remembered the attention he received in 1964 at 17 when he was known as David Jones. Sporting collar-length hair and looking like a well-groomed “Mod” wearing a suit, he went on television with other lads as the spokesman for the “Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men.” He presciently told the host they were tired of comments like “Darling!” and “Can I carry your handbag? … We don’t see why other people should persecute us because of it.”
Recording professionally since Beatlemania, the poor guy and his various bands (including the Manish Boys, the Kon-rads, and the Lower Third) couldn’t get arrested, as he tried a myriad of musical styles, including blues and R&B, in which he was the saxophonist. He also mimicked musical theatre balladeer Anthony Newley, recording novelty songs like “The Laughing Gnome.”
To say that Bowie paid his show biz dues would be an understatement. In 1969 he capitalized on the American astronauts landing on the moon with “Space Oddity.” If it wasn’t for his perseverance, he could have easily turned into a one-hit wonder. Indeed, no other song on that fairly bland folk rock album hit the British, let alone U.S., charts.
Meanwhile, Bowie honed his musical craft, and he finally won over music critics with his 1970 album The Man Who Sold the World, with its dark surreal themes amid propulsive rhythms that served as a precursor to future metal and goth. But it was the provocative cover sleeve that immediately pushed the envelope, as he posed in a dress and a beautiful mane of hair that would make envious any female fashion model. To quote a line from the album, Bowie lived up to his “reputation swept back home in drag.”
Promoting it, Bowie made provocative statements during press interviews like “I’m gay and always have been.” (In 1976 he told Playboy he was bisexual, and in 1983 he admitted to Rolling Stone that he was really heterosexual.)
In a 2002 interview with NPR “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross, Bowie said he wasn’t aiming to make either a sexual or postmodern statement with Ziggy Stardust. The glitter/glam rock that he popularized was a response to many male London musicians grew tired of the hippie era’s uniform of t-shirt and jeans, especially those who went to art school (e.g., Marc Bolan and Bryan Ferry).
He clarified his sexuality in a 1993 Rolling Stone interview: “I think I was always a closet heterosexual. I didn’t ever feel that I was a real bisexual. It was like I was making all the moves, down to the situation of actually trying it out with some guys … The irony of it was that I was not gay. I was physical about it, but frankly it wasn’t enjoyable. It was almost like I was testing myself. It wasn’t something I was comfortable with at all. But it had to be done.”
So any sexual experimentation was his way of researching the aforementioned Ziggy’s backstory, as a method actor would do. He married his first wife Angie in 1970, and she gave birth the next year to their son “Zowie,” and proudly co-parented him during his toddler years. Angie, who he divorced in 1980 at which time David gained sole custody, claims responsibility for his feminine fashion style.
Reviews of his next album, Hunky Dory (1971), often made references to him looking glamorous on the cover like vintage actresses Katharine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich.
Musically, the album’s lesser songs like “Queen Bitch” and “Oh You Pretty Things” added to his however disingenuous gay mystique, but the record was redeemed by some of his best work, including “Life of Mars,” and “The Bewlay Brothers,” and “Changes,” the latter which served as an anthem for identity expression.
His theatrical stage show for The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars (1972), now considered a rock masterpiece, and later music videos, no doubt were influenced by his 1967 tutelage under mime artist Lindsay Kemp, who also played with gender.
During the Ziggy tour, on stage Bowie appeared to be giving fellatio to Mick Ronson’s guitar as he kneeled, gripping the musician’s buttocks, an iconic rock image if there ever was one. Pushing the image and knowing it would get even more attention, Bowie’s manager bought a full-page ad adorned with the photo in the music paper NME.
While his camp behavior on and off stage might have been merely an act, Bowie’s generosity towards other musicians was not. One of his most appealing attributes, such caring is more associated with women, running counter to the selfishness stereotypically found in most chauvinistic males. Following the Ziggy breakthrough, Bowie immediately co-produced with his guitarist Mick Ronson very successful albums and hit singles for Mott the Hoople (All The Young Dudes), and Lou Reed (Transformer).
British expat Dick Hebdige, professor of film & media studies at the University of California, states in his 1979 book Subculture: The Meaning of Style (whose cover illustration has more than a passing resemblance to Bowie circa ’73): “Bowie was responsible for opening up questions of sexual identity which had been previously repressed, ignored or merely hinted at in rock or youth culture.”
Why did Bowie connect to so many fans of both sexes and all sexual inclinations, including gay and straight?
I think it has something to do with younger Baby Boomers like myself who came of age in the early to mid-1970s and missed the Summer of Love, Woodstock, The Beatles, etc. We were rebels without a cause. Ziggy fit the brief because he subversively instilled fear and confusion in our elders.
I think back to when I played high school tennis in suburbia and was paired with a fellow Bowie fan. Although we became the most formidable male doubles team on the squad and beat everyone we played, the coach objected to us singing Bowie songs on the court to psyche ourselves up. Was the coach threatened by our singing, or was it the lyrics he found so objectionable?
Another high school friend, with whom I’d see in concert the likes of the Allman Bros., opened the window of my bedroom and threatened to throw out all glam rock records.
Around this time, I also remember being at a family party of a friend, and marveled at the irony of his homophobic, macho Italian-American dad dancing to the breakthrough hit “Young Americans” (1975) on the record player.
By then, Bowie no longer wore in public dresses, short kimonos and bodysuits, which were replaced by men’s suits and accessories (two bracelets on his wrist of the LP cover of Young Americans). He became the first metrosexual, although his side-parted hair was still a shocking shade of red.
And in the early 1990s, Bowie found love with supermodel Iman, with whom he formed a power couple and nuclear family for a quarter century, raising a daughter, 15 years old at the time of his death. And he remained close with his 44-year-old son, now known as Duncan Jones, taking his father’s original surname.
If Bowie was being honest with Terry Gross about not setting out to make a statement about sexuality with Ziggy, Bowie certainly never lost his sense of humor, fully grasping his construct of an art continuum. In 1979 on Saturday Night Live he wore a military uniformed skirt. His backup singers were Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias – dressed in drag. Bowie’s music video for his ironically titled, hysterically funny “Boys Keep Swinging” and its trick cinematography featured himself as his own backup singers, as three different female personas.
Visual aesthetics aside, Bowie’s lyrics often give listeners hints about his thinking regarding gender and sexuality.
The lyrics of The Man Who Sold the World’s lead track, “Width of a Circle,” certainly packed a homoerotic punch: “He swallowed his pride and puckered his lips/And showed me the leather belt round his hips/My knees were shaking my cheeks aflame … I said ‘Do it again, do it again.’”
The Ziggy album’s opening apocalyptic track “Five Years” contains a curious, politically incorrect line: “When the cop kneeled down and kissed the feet of a priest, and the queer threw up at the sight of that.”
Ziggy’s “well hung and snow-white tan” in the title track reminds me of the Rocky Horror Picture Show (first on the London stage in 1975 and then a feature film in 1976), whose “Sweet Transvestite” character Frank ‘n Further, played by Tim Curry, exhibited the same kind of Ziggy-like passive aggressive behavior, depending upon who they’re trying to woo (e.g., Brad, Janet, his creation Rocky).
The Ziggy album’s B-Side “John I’m Only Dancing” sounds like a bisexual’s explanation during a tiff with his gay lover, “She turns me on.”
The title of Bowie’s “Jean Genie” on his next album Aladdin Sane (1973) appears to be inspired by gay French writer Jean Genet, but its subject matter doesn’t correlate with anything penned by him.
On the album cover, Bowie sports a bright red shag haircut somewhat similar a decade later to Joan Jett’s jet-black version, as well as the look of Eddie Izzard, the British transvestite comedian who rose to fame in the 1990s.
Fast forward to the Diamond Dogs (1974) album’s “Candidate/Sweet Thing” suite about a homoerotic rendezvous between a politician and a male prostitute, whose affair was reported by a scandalous press: “One [photo?] makes you wish that you’d never been seen…” The song is reminiscent of the British film Victim (1961), starring Dirk Bogarde, about a closeted lawyer who’s up for a job with the Queen and being blackmailed while homosexuality was still illegal in Britain.
Diamond Dogs’ single “Rebel Rebel” features a protagonist whose “mother is not sure if you’re a boy or a girl,” and one whom has “tore your dress/your face is a mess.” As Ray Davies mused in the double-entendre “Lola” (1970), listeners can make up their own minds about gender and sexuality.
Bowie revisits the theme in “Hallo Spaceboy” from Outside (1995), in which the space explorer is asked, “Don’t you want to be free/Do you like girls or boys?”
Art doesn’t always speak to everyone the same way, apparently. I contacted a 40-year-old transgendered friend for this piece to find out how she might have been impacted by Bowie’s death. Her response: “I can honestly say that he was not important to me at all.”
Although he feels basically the same way, a 40-ish gay male friend of mine sees Bowie’s biggest accomplishment as getting others to think differently: “I can’t honestly say that Bowie’s perceived sexuality or image had a direct influence on me. He wasn’t someone I could identify with. However, I think there was a profound knock-on effect that did, indirectly, impact me. It was more from the people he influenced (other musicians and artists) that in turn affected me. Guys like Sting and Billy Idol, who bleached their hair, wore make-up, and pierced their ears. The fact that they weren’t gay is irrelevant. They were cool and not homophobic, and much of that was due to Bowie busting down the doors a few years earlier.”
More than five years ago she nearly broke the Internet, regarding a social media rumor that she had a penis: “My fans don’t care if I’m a man, a woman, a hermaphrodite, gay, straight, transgendered, or transsexual. They don’t care! They are there for the music and the freedom. This has been the greatest accomplishment of my life – to get young people to throw away what society has taught them is wrong.”