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David Bowie on Saturday Night Live (1979)
From the video for D.J. (1979)
Tilda Swindon and David Bowie
Bowie as Swindon and vice versa
Three Bowies in the "Boys Keep Swinging" video (1979)

Pride Month in New York and Bowie’s Androgyny after Ziggy

I was in New York City yesterday and today and could not but notice something David Bowie would have never seen when he was Ziggy Stardust– Manhattan decked out for Pride Month. It all leads up to a big Pride Parade at the end of the month. Bowie lived in New York for the last twenty years of his life but to my knowledge never participated in the parade, or in Pride Month festivities. This despite being the first big star to declare himself to be gay, and despite continuing to give nods in the direction of androgyny long after putting glam rock to bed.

Young Americans (1975) was Bowie’s first album after he took down the vermillion mullet, and at first glance it is absent of gay or nontraditional gender related themes. But while he was promoting the album, he also performed and recorded “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again), an updated version of his earlier song that is widely believed to celebrate bisexuality. Lodger’s “Boys Keep Swinging” might seem, by virtue of its title, to be gay-themed. The lyrics suggest otherwise, but Bowie appears in drag in the video not once, but as three different feminine figures. That same year he appeared on Saturday Night Live wearing a skirt suit, and accepted a full-on-the-mouth kiss from a male fan in the video for “D.J.”

The following year, on Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980), Bowie included three songs that touched on issues having to do with gender and sexual orientation. The first song, “It’s No Game (No. 1)” features the masculine vocals of Michi Hirota, a Japanese woman performing in a way to “break down a particular kind of sexist attitude about women.” “Scream Like a Baby” lamented that “they came down hard on the faggots,” and “Teenage Wildlife” includes the line, “Same old thing in brand new drag comes sweeping into view.” Bowie wouldn’t record another complete album for three years until he reemerged as the mainstream and seemingly heterosexual pop star of Let’s Dance. But even in that album Bowie snuck in a cove of the gay-themed “Criminal World,” which few seemed to pick up on at the time.

The hyper-masculine Tin Machine band was not at all androgynous, even decorating its second album cover with the image of anatomical statues of naked men. Nonetheless, Tin Machine II (1991) contained a cover of Roxy Music’s “If There is Something.” Bowie viewed Roxy Music as one of the legitimate originators of glam, along with himself and T-Rex. The song isn’t gay-themed, but it’s a reminder of where Bowie came from. Similarly, Black Tie White Noise (1993) included a cover of Morrissey’s “I Know Its Gonna Happen Someday” (does that one need further explanation?)

Bowie returned to his more overt ways with “Hallo Spaceboy” from 1. Outside (1995), in which he asked the musical question, “do you like girls or boys?” To promote his next album, Earthling (1997), Bowie included a video for “Little Wonder” featuring an androgynous Ziggy clone wandering around town. The video for “The Stars Are Out Tonight” (2013) includes an androgynous spirit, and promotional material for the song included an image of Bowie as Tilda Swinton and Swinton as Bowie. Bowie’s final album, Blackstar includes the song “Girl Loves me” which employs the gay cant, “Polari.

Bowie never advocated in a political sense on any of these themes, but I couldn’t help but think, as I was walking around the rainbow-clad New York, that he contributed to our cultural evolution anyway.

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