The following is an essay I wrote for my queer studies course....I got a B.
David Bowie, born David Robert Jones in London in 1947, has international superstar status as a rock and roll musician and actor. He tended to present himself as a genderqueer performer often dressing in drag and heavy makeup. He has come out as both gay and bisexual on two different occasions; but there are many song lyrics that tend to contradict how he represents himself and his sexuality. David Bowie is seen by many as a queer icon and a symbol of gay liberation and freedom to abandon the gender binary. However, Bowie's perpetual performance of genderqueer (as a character or role rather than his identity) can be seen as problematic for the rest of the queer community.
Bowie first entered the mainstream music arena during the “glam rock” era of the 1970s. The first time Bowie began to embrace his androgynous appearance was while shooting the cover art of The Man Who Sold The World. The album featured David Bowie with shoulder length, wavy, blonde hair wearing a flowing dress and resting on a couch. This album art was used for the 1971 UK issue of the record. However, the album art was banned in the U.S. when it first was released in 1970; the original U.S. cover art featured a cartoon cowboy with a shotgun resting on his arm. The banning of the original album art in the U.S. is a great indicator of how many Americans felt about men dressing in drag publicly, or in this case, in mainstream media. Bowie did look back at this issue in an interview with Blender Magazine in 2002. Bowie explains, “America is a very puritanical place, and I think it stood in the way of so much that I wanted to do” (Collis). The interesting aspect of this reaction to the image of an androgynous man wearing a dress on the cover of a vinyl record is that it wasn't until 1972 that Bowie came out as bisexual, publicly. This reaction came purely from the fear or disgust of a man photographed outside of the gender binary.
In an interview in the English magazine, Melody Maker, in January 1972, David Bowie publicly declared himself bisexual. It seems that this interview would ease the minds of some. According to Kimberly Tauches in Introducing the New Sexuality Studies, “Our ideas of what it means to be a real man or a real woman are based on heteronormativity” (176). Before the public knew that Bowie was not 100% heterosexual, his choice to accentuate his androgyny and not conform to standard gender norms was more threatening. I would argue that it was not until the public found out that he was bisexual that his androgyny and drag was slightly more accepted because it fit into the idea that a real heterosexual man would not wear a dress and grow his hair long. At this point, Bowie is beginning to become more commercially successful and some say that his choice to out himself publicly right before the release of his next album was done for purely economic reasons.
It was his album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (commonly shortened to Ziggy Stardust) that shot Bowie into mainstream and commercial success. Ziggy Stardust told the story of a half-human/half-alien, rock and roll star, Ziggy. It was this character that Bowie would become and allow to take over his own life and personality. Ziggy is the image that we associate with David Bowie: big hair; tight and sparkly jump-suits; heavy makeup. Ziggy would prance around onstage and perform with an intense passion and, at times, blatant homoeroticism. It would seem that Bowie's public coming out interview was timed very well. As soon as the world finds out that David Bowie is not heterosexual, his gender expression is more accepted and almost expected. One of the reasons that this is problematic is that Ziggy Stardust is a fictional character that Bowie created and wrote an album about. His performance and persona while on stage is Ziggy Stardust, not David Bowie. The timing of his public declaration of bisexuality paired with the release of Ziggy Stardust and a worldwide tour set up the public to believe that this androgynous man dressing in mainly drag is because he is bisexual and not fully heterosexual. This is problematic for those in the transgender community or in the drag community and even the bisexual community because their gender expression and orientation is not part of a character or role; that expression is their identity and who they are.
Another problematic aspect to Bowie's portrayal of Ziggy Stardust (as a feminine male with homosexual fantasies) is that his lyrics would contradict his declared identity. Many listeners believed Bowie to be a strong force for gay pride and gay liberation in a society that would repress homosexuality. However, when taking a closer look at some of his lyrics, there are some raised questions about his personal gay pride. In the song “Lady Stardust” Ziggy is “Lady Stardust [singing] his songs of darkness and disgrace.” If Ziggy was strong and comfortable with his identity and proud of who he is (as Ziggy and as Lady), why are his songs filled with darkness and disgrace? These lyrics just raise certain questions about the pride of this strong gay persona. But, in his song “Width of a Circle” off of The Man Who Sold The World, the lyrics seem to demonize the gay lifestyle. The narrator sings that “he smelt the burning pit of fear” and his “tongue [was] swollen with devil's love.” The song tells a story of a gay seducer and it seems that through these metaphors for gay sex, that Bowie is commenting that they are wrong and sinful. These lyrics don't match the out and proud persona that Bowie lived and used as a means to gain international superstardom. Regardless of Bowie's artistic intent, the true power of meaning lies in the ears and mind of the audience taking in the lyrics. These lyrics and thoughts do not seem like something that the gay movement would be looking for in a proud queer icon.
In 1973, Bowie retired Ziggy Stardust as a character and stopped performing the music from the album. He continued to write and record music up until his most recent release, Reality, in 2003. Though Bowie retired Ziggy Stardust, he still would take on different characters and roles including Thin White Duke. One thing that did not change was his continuous androgynous appearance. He continued to emphasize the fact that he would not conform to the standard gender performances of masculine and feminine.
After doing more research about the personal life of David Bowie, his coming out as bisexual seemed more and more false and commercialized. A Bowie biographer, Christopher Sandford explains that a sexual acquaintance of Bowie said that Bowie and his wife at the time “created their bisexual fantasy” (Sandford 48). It would seem that David Bowie used bisexuality and androgyny in his performance as art and a way to gain fame and money. His gender and sexuality in public that his masses of fans would see onstage and use as an iconic gay hero doesn't seem to be truthful to his own identity in his personal life.
Now comes the difficult question: Is David Bowie a queer icon? On one hand, he hijacked an identity to use as part of a character and persona to become a successful musician. On the other hand, he publicly challenged gender norms and social expectations of gender and sexuality on a large mainstream scale. I would argue that Bowie's presence as a positive queer role-model that was fiercely independent and unwavering in the face of adversity would qualify him to be a queer icon. Obviously there are certain problematic issues surrounding the personal sincerity of his behaviors, but then again is there ever a mainstream rock and roll star that is perfect?
Collis, Clark. "Dear Superstar: David Bowie." Blender Aug. 2002. Web. 16 Sept. 2010.
Sandford, Christopher. Bowie: Loving the Alien. New York: Da Capo, 1998. Print.
Seidman, Steven, Nancy Fischer, and Chet Meeks. Introducing the New Sexuality Studies: Original Essays and Interviews. London: Routledge, 2007. Print.
Wilton, Tamsin. "David Bowie." Glbtq.com. Glbtq: The Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Culture, 2002. Web. 20 Feb. 2011. <glbtq.com/arts/bowie_d.html>.