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Bowie and Politics Chapter 3: Rock and Roll Star

There’s a contingent of Bowie’s fanbase that has attempt to cast him as a gay icon since the late 1960s. Bowie certainly addressed gay themes, right up through his final album (“Girl Loves Me,” on Blackstar employs “Polari” slang, which was used as a kind of secret language among the gay underground, especially when Bowie was a younger man). Edwards and Zanetta include an anecdote in their book, Stardust, in which even Bowie’s wife, Angie, pleaded with him, “we are representatives of the gay community…which doesn’t mean that we’re political creatures. We don’t have a cause. We simply represent the wave of the future…if someone would just speak out on behalf of the gay community the result would be extraordinary.”

But Bowie was never truly an activist for gay causes. He certainly wasn’t an advocate in the way, say Ian McKellen or Lady Gaga are today. Despite being one of the world’s biggest stars during the peak of the AIDS crisis, he was not especially outspoken on the issue. Indeed, his own self-identification as a gay man shifted over time. In a 1972 interview, he said, “I’m gay and always have been.” Four years later, he told Playboy, “I am bisexual” and added, “I can’t deny that I’ve used that fact very well.” By 1983, while promoting the mainstream Let’s Dance, the identity outlived its usefulness and Bowie told Rolling Stone that saying he was bisexual was “the biggest mistake I ever made.” In 1997, he told a radio interviewer that he had been a “try-sexual— I’d try anything.”

While not unconnected with his actual sexuality, Bowie’s identification as gay or bisexual was more an expression of his alter egos for artistic — and commercial— rather than personal or political purposes. Bowie received an enormous amount of attention for being one of the first and, initially only openly gay rock stars. Far from attempting to normalize homosexuality, Bowie was counting on the admission as being shocking. Despite his agnosticism toward the political implications of “coming out,” Bowie helped give form to a character around which conservatives would rally against, while providing inspiration for others to not only come out but to speak out. Bowie was not only influenced by the largely unground gay culture of his youth, but very much himself influenced the emerging and increasingly public gay culture.

Bowie also recognized that the gimmick had a lifespan. When he retired the Ziggy Stardust character, he made two additional attempts at roll playing characters with shocking social implications. But though Bowie’s music continued its critical and commercial success, he never quite duplicated what he achieved with Ziggy. And one of his upcoming characters succeeded in being shocking, but in a way that produced some unintended reactions, leading Bowie to begin outlining a clearer political philosophy in his subsequent music.

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Bowie had been playing with the idea of “character” since the Society for the Protection of Long-Haired Men and even before. His (rightfully) oft-forgotten self-titled first album is all about a collection of oddball characters. As he made pronouncements about his sexuality, wore a “man’s dress,” grew his hair even longer and put makeup on his face, Bowie took on a fictionalized persona. The idea of taking on a role and singing about that character came together with Bowie’s fifth album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972). Ziggy, as a character, was not even fully formed at the time of the album’s release, but between what Bowie put into his creation and what his fans took out of it, Ziggy came to be thought of as Bowie’s messianic, bisexual alien rock star alter ego. It made him famous, established his fanbase and made the grownups really mad.

Bowie announced his intentions in two songs: “Queen Bitch,” from Hunky Dory (1971), and “Star” from the Ziggy album. “Queen Bitch” is possibly Bowie’s most overtly gay-themed song. Its narrator looks on at a gay man, dominating club life who is “swishy in her [note the feminine pronoun] satin and tat; In her frock coat and bipperty-bopperty hat,” and vows, “I can do better than that.” This is not an internal musing about personal identity. It’s a declaration of ambition. Bowie views the swishy behavior and ostentatious attire as elements of a show. He sees a character and pledges to do more with the concept.

Bowie, on the cover of Hunky Dory, not only appears to be feminine, but looks like a specific woman— Marlene Dietrich (another photo of whom served as inspiration for Freddie Mercury on the cover of the Queen album, Queen II). This follows his earlier appearance on one version of the cover of The Man Who Sold the World, on which he appeared in a dress and looked like Lauren Bacall, Greta Garbo or Veronica Lake. Bowie was camping it up for sure, but hadn’t quite struck on the idea of giving his character a name.

By the time he got to Ziggy, the next year, he refined his declared intent in the song, “Star,” where he sang, “I can make it all worthwhile as a rock ‘n’ roll star.” What he was doing on this very album was taking on a persona— “So inviting, so enticing to play the part.” I have come to see Ziggy as really at least two albums grafted together. “Lady Stardust,” “Hang On To Yourself;” and “Ziggy Stardust” are really the only songs on the album that are inarguably about Ziggy and the Spiders. The rest are somewhat disconnected (yes, yes, some fans will contort themselves to explain how all the album’s songs tell some part of Ziggy’s story, but it just ain’t there). But “Star” binds the album together. Bowie outlines his approach to play the part of a wild rock star, then delivers the product at maximum volume. Even if something like, “It Ain’t Easy” would appear to have no plausible connection to Ziggy, it could at least fit into the idea that it is Ziggy who is singing the song.

“Star” uses certain familiar words and phrases to latch on to some of the other songs. The word, “star” means celebrity in this case, the type of twinkly heavenly body in “Starman,” and of course, as last name in “Stardust”. Bowie returns to the topic of “rock ‘n’ roll” in the album’s epic final song, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.” It all seems to come together.

Three of Bowie’s four previous albums, none of which was truly commercial successful at the time, could hardly be thought of as rock albums. The fourth, The Man Who Sold the World, is closer to a heavy metal album than the type of music more typically associated with Bowie. But by the time of Ziggy, Bowie figured he would achieve success specifically as a rock star. And rock, if nothing else, is a genre of rebellion.

By the late 60s and early 70s, everyone from Elvis to the Velvet Underground had already made their shocking appeal to teenagers looking to break free from their parents’ conformist strictures through sex, drugs, radial politics and volume. There was nothing truly new there. So, Bowie scanned the culture and settled on what might have seemed like the last taboo— homosexuality.

How taboo was homosexuality? Consider the treatment of gays, or the idea of gays, in the hands of mainstream culture. In the wake of Stonewall and the GLF, in the same year as Ziggy, the movie Deliverance was released, depicting the rape of a character played by Ned Beatty as the ultimate nightmare for a group of manly, beer drinking weekend hunters. During the rape, Beatty’s character was ordered to “squeal like a pig,” which, was not simply degrading to the character, but also equated the sex act to bestiality. Since the idea of homosexuality was limited to the practice of sodomy, the implication was that gays were subhuman beasts.

The previous year, the same year as Hunky Dory, James Bond did battle in Diamonds Are Forever with his two least-physically imposing foes— Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd. Wint and Kidd were not giants and did not possess metal fangs or weaponized hats— their threat was that they were gay. The killers were not even depicted as wielding guns, which considering the phallic implications of guns in Bond movies, was a subtle commentary on their virility. Bond ultimately dispatched one of them with a maneuver that involved a low blow, while setting the other on fire such that he literally was flaming.

In both cases, and as consistent with the mainstream treatment of gays at the time, homosexuality was a behavior rather than an identity, and the sexual aspect of that behavior threatened to turn men into women, or as in Deliverance, animals. It isn’t coincidental that in the characters of James Bond and Beatty’s hunting party, the protagonists epitomized the conservative masculine ideal. A war was on— we would later call it the culture war — and while Bond and Bowie were both British, they were not on the same side.

Another Brit exploited the mainstream urge to see gays beaten to a pulp ahead of Bowie’s realization that a shared sense of oppression could be marketable. As has often been the case, the reactionary world of professional wrestling responded to the cultural “threat” before the wider world caught on that there was a threat in the first place. The Welsh wrestler known as “The Exotic” Adrian Street presented as a gay heel (villain) decked out in flamboyant makeup and attire that would have made him look at home in a glam band. But Street was glam years before glam— he introduced the character in the 60s. The point is that Street’s villainy was that he was gay. Though he never actually declared himself as such, his over-the-top appearance signaled to wrestling fans that he warranted a good beating because of his obvious threat to (usually much larger) men grappling with him in nothing more than wrestling trunks. Street called out wrestling’s homoeroticism, which, while obvious, was an offensive concept to most fans. And it worked. Though Street was Welsh, he would become an international wrestling star whose gimmick would later be copied by the likes of “The Adorable” Adrian Adonis and Goldust, among others.

To the extent that the culture at the time depicted any gays in a positive light, such depictions were either targeted at niche audiences, were coded or were comedic. Bowie saw fertile ground. Playing on the enemy-of-my-enemy dynamic, similar to how the idea of radical chic emerged from the civil rights and anti-war movements, Bowie raised a rainbow flag to rally around based in part on who was on the other side.

Bowie did not so much make a play at identity politics, but made sexual ambiguity cool and rebelliously attractive. He might have been observing an out-group subculture in “Queen Bitch,” but Ziggy made a move to broaden the subculture, making lipstick and feathered boas signs of belonging. The maneuver only worked because it was such an open invitation for the stodgy mainstream culture to oppose. If Mom and Dad are against it, I want to be it. Todd Haynes’ barely fictionalized movie about the period, Velvet Goldmine, depicted his Bowie-like character as opening the door for genuinely gay fans but also sparking what amounted to a fad.

And Bowie recognized what he was doing as a fad. Within months, not years, glam elements were making their way into more mainstream culture, becoming less threatening and less rebellious. Consider Elton John’s album covers— the covers of his first six albums feature fairly conventional images— headshots, the silhouette of him playing piano, a western motif, a movie theater… even a heterosexual kiss. But his 1973 album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road appeared glam. And if the somewhat exotic appearance of John on the front cover wasn’t enough, interior art depicts Bennie and the Jets as looking suspiciously like Ziggy and the Spiders.

Elton John did not officially, publicly come out as gay until 1992. Though, unlike Bowie he would eventually become an activist in gay-related causes, what he was doing in the early 70s was following was Bowie’s stylistic lead only. John neutered the sexual element of Bowie’s show, taking glam sensibilities mainstream. And it worked for Elton John— his music was even more commercially successful than Bowie’s. And about that time Bowie recognized that he was losing his out-group. The threat-appeal was fading. He needed a new character.

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Before we entirely leave Ziggy, it’s worth noting that Bowie’s groundbreaking character was not simply a threat to heterosexuality, but marriage, parenting and the entire social order. While declaring himself gay, Bowie was also taking photo shoots with his wife. It was not simply an open marriage, but a publicly open marriage, in which both husband and wife did not discriminate among partners of either (or any) gender. On top of that— they were parents! And though their young son did not become part of the act, he was made part of the story— he was initially named Zowie Bowie and sometimes appeared in photo shoots with his exotic parents. With the Bowies, the nuclear family had become radioactive.

In his book Shakespeare in a Divided America, James Shapiro discussed how productions of The Taming of the Shrew challenged societal notions about marriage in the mid-20th Century. Adultery was so taboo that “no other behavior that was polled [by Gallup] was considered less morally acceptable” as late as the late 90s—“far more Americans considered gay or lesbian relationships morally acceptable.” Shapiro told this tale in discussing the making of the 1998 movie, Shakespeare in Love, which, he implied became a hit by treating these topics with a light touch. Ideas about marriage are as foundational to the social order as are ideas about gender roles. Bowie’s early 70s presentation challenged all of that.

If David Bowie (and his wife, Angie) did not seek to be political creatures with a cause, it is hard to look back and think that he didn’t have a shaping influence on some of the nascent cultural and political struggles around homosexuality that would be a regular feature of at least American politics for the next half century. No other glam artist was as prominent, and the other gay artists who were as or more prominent would not come out for years. Angie was right—regardless of his motivation, Bowie represented a wave of the future.

But if Bowie was ahead of his time (if not quite ahead of Adrian Street) in the early 70s, he was about ten years behind the times in the middle of the decade.

Enter… the Gouster.

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Stay tuned for chapter 4 next week. Bowie and Politics is intended to be a long-form piece under the umbrella of the Lyrics Series.

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