David Bowie is infamous for more than just his music. His songs are beautiful both musically and lyrically, and his overall presence set his work apart from other artists throughout his career. Bowie wasn’t just the kind of singer you listened to passively. He presented you with a complete experience; aural, visual, and sometimes spiritual.
The level to which people connected with Bowie’s music, personas, and presence has never been more evident since his passing earlier this week. Being as involved in artistic GLBTQ and drag communities as I am, I was always well aware of the influence Bowie had on my friends and fellow artists. It wasn’t until one of their most valued idols was so suddenly taken from them, however, that many people I know spoke in depth about how much they loved him and how deeply his work affected not just their art, but their lives.
I’ve always enjoyed, admired, and respected David Bowie’s work. I was never as entrenched in his fan base as some of my friends, but he was always there in my artistic and pop cultural frame of reference, like a force driving it all. Every singer and artist I’ve ever really loved has cited David Bowie as one of their first and most important influences. I remember first learning about him when I was nine years old. I was devouring a magazine about the Spice Girls, one of probably 100 that I owned. On one page, the magazine featured an Alphabetical chart of awesome people the Spice Girls had gotten to meet that year (“Q: It was an honor to meet the Queen of England in 1997!”). At the bottom of the list, there was a picture of a man in a sparkly unitard with a large gold circle painted on his forehead. The caption said “Z: This is kind of cheating, but we didn’t meet anyone else whose name really starts with Z, so we’ll talk about Ziggy Stardust! In 1997, the Spice Girls got to meet David Bowie!”
I was intrigued as to why the magazine was calling this sparkly man David Bowie if his name was really Ziggy Stardust. I fired up the whirring dial up modem and searched his picture, only to find out that Ziggy Stardust and David Bowie were the same person. I absolutely loved the concept. His makeup and heeled shoes didn’t really register with me; I was a dancer and in musical theater, so I was used to seeing boys wear things that weren’t typically “for men”. In my nine-year-old-girl frame of reference, Bowie was just like my beloved Spice Girls with their stage names, only weirder. These people were teaching me that you can be whoever and whatever you want, as long as you don’t mind that people think you’re a little strange for using a funny nickname as an adult!
For the past few days, my social networks have been awash with beautiful, inspirational, and sometimes heart wrenching stories about how people of all different histories, experiences, and identities discovered David Bowie and his music. Most of these people have also spoken about how Bowie’s work helped them get to know themselves. Many of these stories have included accounts of pain, self-doubt, and feelings of loneliness from young people who spent years feeling excluded by society for not meeting normative mainstream expectations of things like gender and sexuality. Most of these people also remembered fondly how the discovery of Bowie, his music, and his strong presence changed their perspective and helped pull them out of dark places emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.
Reading about my friends’ connections with David Bowie has me thinking about his contributions, not just to art, but also to society. One of Bowie’s biggest points of infamy was the way he performed his masculinity. Sure, he used male pronouns, had relationships with women, and largely went about his life as a perceived heterosexual man. His presentation of his maleness, however, was transgressive and contentious, especially to very mainstream audiences. His look was androgynous and his lyrics were often scandalous even in their mystic beauty. His intelligent points of view on identity and personhood, however, were expressed with enough charm and wit to win over the majority of the public, no matter how “strange” he looked.
Here are six simple ways in which David Bowie defied societal expectations in order to break new ground for alternative conceptions of gender in modern music.
His Attitude About Self-presentation
Young David Bowie broke barriers in the 1970’s with the simple way he wore his hair. Although many men wore their hair long at the time, Bowie skipped the facial hair and paired his long locks with more daring apparel than most men with similar hairstyles. His overall aesthetic confused many audiences, and the ongoing social obsession with linking appearance to gender caused many to question not just his sense of style, but rather his entire identity. For most of his career, Bowie’s style remained quite androgynous, although he reinterpreted it throughout the years.
Even when he adopted shorter hairstyles, he still performed his masculinity alternatively to what society generally expects of men. More important than the way he wore his hair, however, was the way he handled contention over it. Bowie never shied away from being mistaken for female and he largely didn’t correct or confront public masses who misgendered or misunderstood him. For him, having his masculinity interpreted as something other than the mainstream understanding of what it means to “be a man” was no problem. Given his status in the public eye, this communicated a huge message to young followers facing the same type of backlash over their own identities.
His Mainstreaming of Non-Normative Gender Identity
Bowie used his platform to communicate more than just an alternative form of masculinity. He’s also been known to feature images of alternative femininity and, of course, the element of androgyny is ever present. Above and beyond the way he presented his own identity, however, he also used his widespread artistic materials to communicate about gender on a grander scale.
The 1979 song “Boys Keep Swinging” and its music video are the perfect example of Bowie’s wider conception of gender identity and his desire to share that with the world. The lyrics of the song speak about male privilege and the benefits of being born male (“Nothing stands in your way, when you’re a boy”). If you listen carefully, however, there are also lyrics that oppose stereotypical masculinity (“When you’re a boy, other boys check you out”). At the time, these simple lyrics were controversial enough that Bowie’s label eventually decided not to release the song in the United States. The line was also censored from several live performances, including Saturday Night Live later in 1979.
Beyond the lyrics of the song, “Boys Keep Swinging” was also controversial for its music video. In it, three female backup singers are features alongside Bowie, who sings in a simple suit and jacket. As the video progresses, however, these singers are revealed to be Bowie dressed in three different drag personas. As the song picks up, Bowie struts down a runway in each drag look, rips off each wig, and wipes his lipstick across his face defiantly.
Bowie kept the non-normative visuals associated with the song when it came to live performances, hiring NYC-based performance artist (and notorious gender-bender) Klaus Nomi as his backup singer for SNL. Bowie himself performed as a puppet, but he made sure the crowd knew that his puppet was male. During the performance, the puppet’s pants began to slip down and NBC, who took care to bleep out homoerotic lyrics, failed to censor the puppet’s genitalia bouncing around as Bowie danced next to the androgynous looking Nomi.
Bowie kept gender bending as an element in his music videos to the end of his career. In 2013, he released the music video for “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”, which features a cast of androgynous models, including a “young Bowie” character played by a woman in male drag.
His Fashion Choices
Bowie was influential through the age of glam rock when many men wore platform shoes and makeup, but his style was different. He’d been donning women’s clothing and painting his face even before the hair bands of the 1980s, and he continued doing it long after. Even things as simple as his footwear choices caused a stir. Sure, bands like KISS wore platform boots too, but their entire aesthetic was intentionally over the top. Despite their makeup and clothing, they were still undoubtedly masculine rock stars, fitting stereotypes at least with their behavior if not with their appearances.
Bowie, however, made contentious fashion choices with a sense of more subtle intentionality. He knew what he was doing when he chose a pair of stilettos over a pair of sensible loafers, but he also didn’t do it with an overtly “screw you” tone. He simply did it.
His Creation of Alter Egos
Many stars create personas. They’re performers, after all, and they do just that for the cameras, the fans, and the talk show hosts. Bowie, however, skipped the “celebrity persona” and instead created actual alter egos. These were less the result of handling fame and publicity and more the product of a person who needed an extra boost of confidence to burst into the spotlight. By creating characters for himself, Bowie took full ownership of his identity in a unique and roundabout way. If David didn’t have the confidence to perform a new song in a spangled catsuit, Ziggy Stardust certainly did, but Ziggy wasn’t Bowie’s only alter ego. You might recall Aladdin Sane and The Thin White Duke as well.
Bowie’s alter egos served as a medium through which he could communicate his art. They were also the perfect tools for ongoing identity activism. While Bowie gave witty interviews full of intelligent answers, Ziggy painted his face and donned high heels. Bowie helped bring mainstream understanding to what other artists, like drag queens, had already been doing for years. Because of the simple intentionality behind his work, however, there wasn’t an overwhelming sense that this heterosexual man was appropriating largely GLBTQ art forms. This allowed him to communicate the beauty and importance of gender bending to a wider, more mainstream audience.
His Use of Makeup
Whether you’re looking at the smoky eyes and devilish brows of the Goblin King in the Labyrinth or the metallic painted face of Ziggy Stardust, you can see that Bowie had a hand in paving the way for other made up musical acts since. He used makeup fearlessly to communicate his characters and establish their independent personas, literally painting a fuller picture of who he was, or at least who he wanted to be in that moment. Beyond aesthetic appeal, makeup served as another tool through which Bowie took full control of his identity. This communicated to audiences that there is self-empowerment in creativity and that gender and sexuality have no bearing on which tools it is “acceptable” for people to use to express themselves.
The Way He Related to Other Men
Bowie’s interactions with other male artists on stage and in music videos have long been accused of being homoerotic by more conservative sources. Though Bowie had several widely publicized relationships with women during his career, he never shied away from touching, embracing, or getting close to other men for the sake of good artistic chemistry. The most transgressive of Bowie’s male interactions were never sexual or aggressively purposeful, as though he was out to prove a point. They were, rather, natural and done in a second-nature way, communicating to audiences that male interaction between icons (and others) shouldn’t be so controversial.
Examples of this can be seen with Bowie’s guitarist Mick Ronson during their performance of “Starman” on Top of the Pops in 1972. At several points, Bowie casually threw his arm around Ronson’s shoulders, pulling him close to share the microphone and looking happily into his eyes. These simple acts of camaraderie were atypical at a time when so many men in mainstream media were heteronormatively masculine, keeping their touch during performances to themselves or to women. The performance in combination with Bowie’s already contentious appearance and attitude resulted in widespread speculation about his sexuality, despite the simplicity of the gestures.
A similar reaction took place in 1985 when Bowie and Mick Jagger released the music video for “Dancing in the Street”. In the video, the two men dance ecstatically together during the song. The atmosphere is playful and fun while they embrace one another, bump their hips together, and sing to each other forehead to forehead. Despite the casual nature of their actions, public speculation rose once more.
Did misinterpretation of Bowie’s interactions with his fellow male artists ever stop him from behaving how he saw fit? Was he ever openly bothered by or defensive over assumptions about his sexuality? Not once.
David Bowie’s legacy is more than just that of a pop star. He’ll continue to be known as a trend setting, groundbreaking, phenomenally unique artist, and his gender transgressive work will be appreciated nostalgically for generations to come.
Just like I’ve never forgotten the funny way that I discovered David Bowie, I’ll never forget where I was when we learned of his passing. My friend Jamie and I had gotten all dressed up in full bio drag to see our friend, Toronto drag queen Allysin Chaynes, perform with some other queens at our favorite local drag bar. It was a Sunday, so it wasn’t crowded but we had lots of friends there. We try not to check our cell phones while the queens are performing because it’s considered quite rude, but Jamie checked her Twitter notifications between Allysin’s numbers. As the music started up again, I heard Jamie gasp and say “Oh no, oh no, oh no”. I turned to see her covering her mouth and holding her phone out to show me a picture that said “RIP David Bowie”.
At first, we thought it was a hoax. I told everyone how rude I thought those death announcement pranks on Twitter are. When they did it to Cyndi Lauper a few years ago, members of her family believed it and she was very offended. Hadn’t people learned their lesson yet? The more we searched our phones, however, the more legitimate news sources began posting the picture. Finally, I found Bowie’s official Facebook page and right at the top, followed by confused and dismayed fan comments, was a status from less than ten minutes before announcing the end of Bowie’s secret battle with cancer.
Jamie started to cry a little. Like me, she loves several artists to whom Bowie’s work means the world. She asked our friend Matt whether someone should tell Allysin, who had noticed us all standing with our phones out and our backs turned even though she was mid-performance. Matt responded, “I don’t know. She’s a big fan. She might cry”. When the music stopped, Jamie rushed to the edge of the stage with her phone. Allysin had planned that her finale number was going to be a Lady Gaga song that we loved because she knows we’re die hard fans and she’s a lovely friend. When she saw Jamie’s phone, though, she stopped the DJ, took the mic, and addressed the audience. She said, “Guys, I need you all to listen up for a second. I have some really sad news”. People could see that she was choked up. The entire bar went very quiet. Allysin said, “David Bowie died. I can’t believe this is real. I had a number planned already, but I think I need to do something else”.
Allysin handed back the mic and the phone, whispered to the DJ, and proceeded to perform the most heartfelt lip sync of “Life on Mars?” I’ve ever seen. I’ve been to more drag shows than I can even count and I’ve seen several queens do the song justice, but nothing compared to this. What had been a wet, rainy night had turned into a silent, nearly whiteout snowfall during the show and you could barely see out the window by the stage. Allysin didn’t do anything wild, but she really felt it and so did the rest of us. She stood on the stage in a floor length dress, spilling emotion into the lip sync with tears in her eyes while the rest of us watched in silence. She didn’t actually cry but you could tell she was overwhelmed. Even so, she held it together and delivered that performance like the professional queen she is.
When the song ended, she took the mic and told us what Bowie and his music had meant to her. She thanked us for coming and we finally broke our silence to cheer for her amazing performance. Drag shows are usually full of rowdy people dancing, singing, tipping queens and yelling their requests, so it was strange when the lights came up on a still, quiet crowd. For those few minutes, we’d all been entranced by good performance art, good music, and the memory of an icon.