English glam rock legend David Bowie has lived and thrived through the process of reinvention for over 40 years. With each musical release—including classic albums such as Hunky Dory and Heroes—Bowie took on a unique persona that came with a new sound, new attitude and a new take on sexuality. While impressed by Bowie’s sheer talent and musical creativity, the changing pop culture scene emerging from the late 1950s and early 1960s was more enthralled by his own personal sexuality. Painting him as either a fake, or as a pioneer of equality, the media’s obsession with Bowie’s taboo bisexuality affected his fans and his music to the point of actual social change.
David Robert Jones has been shifting his personality since his birth in 1947. Growing up in the tough and conservative south London neighborhood of Brixton, Bowie struggled to stand out and express himself within his suburban prison. He took to the streets of central London soaking up the culture and rush of being a young person in a world changing too fast for the ruling generation to notice or control. When he was in the heart of the city, David was just another spirited young lad; in Brixton he stood out like a sore thumb. David Buckley, author of Strange Fascination, argues that the seeds of Bowie’s individuality were planted in his Brixton past:
“All the shock, all the outrage, all the outreach which has dominated his music, comes from the predicament of this liminality; from not fitting in, from wanting to be different, from being brought up in a climate of suburban conformity, and wanting to belong to a community of urban hipness.”
Bowie recognized his need for creative freedom with his life stating later, “If I wasn’t doing [music], I don’t know what I’d do. I’d either be in a nut-house or a prison” (as cited in Chris Welch’s book, We Could Be Heroes). With his first hit “Space Oddity,” David Jones cut the suburban monotony from his life. He was now David Bowie.
Bowie’s fame following the musical journey of “Major Tom” came in the form of a fictional band and rock god named Ziggy Stardust. The 1972 album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, jump-started the reign of glam rock with all of its glitter and sexual ambiguity. Characterized by platform boots and heavy amounts of mascara, British and American youths were taken with the radical Bowie. It became quite difficult to distinguish between the fictional and “plastic” bisexual rock legend Ziggy Stardust, and the true artist David Bowie. These blurred lines between fact and fiction created buzz about Bowie’s true sexuality, leaving fans to miss the creative genius of the album.
Critics and fans went to Bowie’s concerts in order to crack the code of the mystery of this flamboyant “alien” on stage. Bowie taunted the confused spectators by playing heavily into the gender-bending of Ziggy. Philip Auslander’s Performing Glam Rock recalled the palpable physical and sexual experience of a live Bowie concert during that time: “Bowie famously simulated fellatio on Ronson by ‘going down’ on the guitarist’s instrument as he played.”
Articles became more focused on the persona of Ziggy Stardust because the idea of an oozing sexuality beyond Elvis Presley was unfathomable, and in turn, fascinating to audiences who were more accustomed to the music produced in the ‘50s and ‘60s. With the growing popularity of “glam rock,” the previous perceptions of masculinity were being thrown out for men who wore scarves, eye patches and lipstick on any given night.
The gender issues that came out of glam rock’s flamboyant and androgynous sexualized rock and roll brought close analysis onto Bowie’s songs. In the November 1980 issue of The Face, Jon Savage wrote an article pinpointing the media circus that was surrounding Bowie and his persona: “This is exactly what most people want to know – you can always rely on the Sun to give the public what it wants – about David Bowie, Star: a bit of futurism, a bit of make-up, but best, lots of Gender Confusion.” Everyone attempted to dissect each song to find out about Bowie’s sexuality . “Rebel Rebel”, one of Bowie’s greatest hits, focused on the appeal of an androgynous “raunchy tomboy rock chick” according to Welch. “Rebel Rebel” brought the concept of bisexuality to the front lines of popular culture:
You’ve got your mother in a whirl
She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl
Hey babe, your hair’s alright
Hey babe, let’s go out tonight
You like me, and I like it all
We like dancing and we look divine
You love bands when they’re playing hard
You want more and you want it fast
They put you down, they say I’m wrong
You tacky thing, you put them on
Rebel rebel, you’ve torn your dress
Rebel rebel, your face is a mess
Rebel rebel, how could they know?
Hot tramp, I love you so!
The attraction to an androgynous girl sparked more gender-based controversy and praise for David Bowie. “You like me, and I like it all” was widely viewed as a lyric that exposed Bowie’s true sexuality, and the papers continued to write about it. As Savage writes: “He’s [Bowie] invented the language to express gender confusion. It still hasn’t been superseded.”
Matched with his obsession with space travel and aliens, the amount of lyrical evidence for Bowie’s bisexuality was overwhelming. “Life on Mars?” takes the position of a complete outsider looking at the absurdities of Earth:
Fighting in the dance hall.
Look at those cavemen go.
It’s the freakiest show.
Take a look at the lawman
Beating up the wrong guy.
Wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show.
Is there life on Mars?
In his 1998 article “The Comfort of Glam” for The Advocate, Jim Farber writes about the common perception of Bowie’s fashion and painted face. “Overseas, the equally-hungry-for-attention David Bowie rouged his cheeks and wore a billowing dress for the cover of the 1971 U.K. version of The Man Who Sold the World.” Being described as “hungry for attention” leaves the public definition of Bowie as a child acting out, without any real forethought and importance. Savage recalls that “Make-up definitely beat dope as the thing to shock your parents with.” While most diehards found the fact that all the music-loving youths of the world were “jumping on the band wagon” of the androgyny of the father of glam rock, getting the word out was more important than the means.
According to Farber, Bowie’s media exposure as a bisexual gave the young gay community of the 1970s and ‘80s a security blanket to try new things and explore their sexuality in a socially acceptable forum: glam rock. The Gay News issue from July 1972 wrote a glowing article about David Bowie, “claiming him to their side”: “His words span concepts from science fiction and the coming of a super- race to sexual liberation. And we all had a bloody good time. David Bowie is probably the best rock musician in Britain now. One day he’ll become as popular as he deserves to be. And that’ll give gay rock a potent spokesman.”
Bowie was seen as a pioneer/martyr for all sexually confused youths of the time, but this title was given to him by the mass media; Bowie had never tried to be the spokesperson for gay rock: “Bowie has always been theatrical rock’s straw hero. Somehow he found himself labelled a pioneer in a field in which he actually dabbled only minimally,” wrote Richard Cromelin in a 1974 issue of Rolling Stone magazine.
Savage wrote in The Face in 1980 that “What he did, then, was to open Pandora’s box: by making homosex attractive (rather than a snigger) he liberated and brought into the mainstream a whole range of fantasies which had hitherto been repressed. Naturally they came out with great force.”
With the amount of press that Bowie received for his bisexuality, his music began to reflect the issues that the media assumed he was involved in. Bowie realized the amount of power he had within the public eye as a performer, and decided to use his power to enlighten people:
“Bowie is not attempting merely to shock bourgeois sensibility. Rather, he uses elements from underground gay culture to broach debates about how gender and sexuality function to define artistic expression. His attention on Lodger to the specific politics of feminist critiques of the patriarchal system and his violence against women does not place his work…The performance provides a stinging critique of the song’s lyrics, purposefully shutting down some “innocent” interpretations for one that is much more political…His understanding of potentialities of the performance of gender in a theatricalized venue has changed” (Shelton Waltrep, The Aesthetics of Self Invention)
While Bowie tried to change to influence the thoughts and actions of mainstream culture, the mass media continued to peg him as a bisexual glam rocker. Through interviews, it is clear that Bowie has accepted that his sexuality and changing personas are at the forefront of people’s minds; he knows that it sells papers and keeps him in the public eye. This savvy knowledge of the fickle business of popularity has led him to flip-flop on his own preference: women or men or both?
Having bisexuality as his “headline” made David Bowie accessible to the listening public for having discussions about gender. His popularity sparked a shift in the treatment of transsexuals and of homosexuality as more than just an abstract concept.
Over the years, the media’s view of sexuality has changed. This shift in coverage began with the glam rock movement in the 1970’s. David Bowie had a target on his glitter-covered back, but continued to change and embrace his individuality in order to open minds, thereby paving the way for other artists. With each changing persona, David Bowie continued to make brilliant music, blurring lines between genres and genders.
“I never said I was a rock star. At any time. If I’m a rock star, then I’m a rock star despite myself. I just wanted to be good old David Bowie” (Lisa Robinson in Hit Parader, 1976).
Throughout his constantly changing public persona and musical style, Bowie understood the importance of keeping a bit of mystery in order to stay in the limelight. While everyone remembers the glitter and spandex of the Bowie of the 1970’s, Bowie continues to happily look forward with his second wife, Iman. Married forseveral years, it seems as if Bowie’s personal sexual confusion has been laid to rest, but his musical and public legacy continues to have a life of its own with regards to the influence of his alleged sexual experimentation.