Oh no, don’t say it’s true: on the loss of David Bowie

‘I always had a repulsive need to be something more than human.’

bowie 6

I cannot comprehend or imagine a world without David Bowie, which is pretty shit, as it appears I am now living in one.

He’s always been there, an icon in every sense, a phoenix and a mage, a powerful, perpetual, proud fusion of image and art and music and identity. I cannot yet quite believe he’s not immortal, although as one wise friend pointed out, pace the much-missed Pterry, ‘nobody is truly dead until the ripples they left in the world die away.’ And right now, it is hard to imagine the many musical and magical marks Bowie left fading for many, many lifetimes. How much of my life has he soundtracked? How much of my musical and cultural environment  has he influenced? How much of my world has he changed? I don’t even know. A lot. [1]

bowie 1

It’s a miracle and maybe (still and for always) a message, the universal appeal of a genius who stood so flamboyantly  outside the boundaries of ‘normal’, who (as the amazing pianist James Rhodes said next to his breaking heart on Twitter this morning) ‘made feeling like a freak okay’. He gave us all hope, the freaks and the weirdos and the brave and the dreamers, and maybe everyone’s at least a tiny bit of a freak or a weirdo on the inside.

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And yet he was so cool, by any tyrannical definition of the world.

His androgyny, his bisexuality, his glamour, his unashamed adoption of whichever cultural semiotics or tools would serve his artistic ends with complete disregard for convention or collusion, his constant reinvention, his willingness to challenge and to change – he was a shaft of light in a dark and occasionally darkening world, an inspiration for artists and musicians but also for anyone trying to live with creativity and conviction and meaning. I’ve read a lot about whether he was ‘really’ queer or not and I’m unconvinced it matters – the point was, he made space for others to be. He fucked with gender semiotics and we’re all a little bit richer for it.

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But I don’t think I need to make an argument for how David Bowie changed culture, because everyone will be doing that, and besides, it’s obvious. He changed the world I grew up in, he created cultural space,  but more than that, he changed me. Not just because I have a thing for androgyny (and tall thin people, go figure) but because Changes gave me courage and Life on Mars gave me imagination and Heroes gave me determination and hope. Boy and I spent the whole of recent holiday listening to Earthling, and it glittered and glowed like a jewel.

David Bowie was, and is, so, so much more than human. He was an icon. He is a legend. He is one of the stories we tell ourselves in order to become who we are. He gave so many of us the courage to be more fully and unconventionally ourselves.

We can be heroes.

bowie swinton






[1] Since I wrote this, a good friend has pointed out he did some really shitty stuff, like fucking a 13 or possibly 15-year-old in the 1970s. An interview with the girl concerned, Lori Maddox, is here (which gives her age as 15, and explicitly discusses the age and power disparities). I knew nothing of this, and will let this post stand as it sums up my feelings about his art. Nevertheless, I have pretty complex feelings I may discuss at some future point, mostly hinging on Lori Maddox’s autonomy and right to define her own sexual experiences, and the importance of cultural context in any understanding. Was the LA groupie culture of the 70s problematic and entitled? Undoubtedly. Should Bowie have acted differently? Yes. Did he harm anyone? Lori says not, and I don’t think it’s anyone else’s place to tell her otherwise, and by extension deny her ownership of her sexuality. Yes, teenage girls are problematically sexually objectified by patriarchy. They’re also denied the right to their own sexuality and desires by patriarchy, and the adult Lori’s interview makes it clear she consented enthusiastically to sex and looks back with joy and fondness on the incidents concerned. Nobody has the right to tell her otherwise, for all that a horrifying majority of older men’s relationships with teenage girls are abusive. It’s a minefield. This is probably the best take on it I’ve come across, although as stated I balk at unilaterally defining Lori Maddox’s sexual experiences as abuse without reference to her perspective. Having been a teenage girl doesn’t mean her perspective is invalid, particularly a) when it’s about her bodily autonomy and b) we’re now some 40 years on, and she might reasonably be expected to have re-evaluated her experiences with the insight of maturity. Who knows, maybe – hopefully –  Bowie had some sort of Damascene conversion and adopted modern ideas about consent. He was ahead of his time, it’s not impossible. But clearly, whilst his context and his decisions were problematic, my personal feeling is that they don’t undermine all the good that he did in the world. YMMV.

About Goblin

Academic, critic, endlessly fascinated; reads, thinks, listens and talks far more than is good for her. Ex-anorexic, ex-ME, excitable, queer, kinky, nosy, mouthy. Purveyor of uncomfortable truths. Talks filth in public. Likes rabbits, old houses with big windows and John Wilmot Earl of Rochester. Needs more sleep.
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1 Response to Oh no, don’t say it’s true: on the loss of David Bowie

  1. Catherine says:

    “Was the LA groupie culture of the 70s problematic and entitled? Undoubtedly.”

    Agreed, but then the culture at the time was sexist and entitled in general. Does that mean all consenting sex occurring at the time was problematic, just because the culture itself was problematic and women had, generally, less power than men? I would say no. Just because there was a lot of abuse going on doesn’t mean people weren’t having plenty of enthusiastic sexual relations as well. Same goes for groupies, even underage ones. Were many groupies exploited? Sure. But if we are to respect Lori’s telling of the story, she, as you said, “consented enthusiastically to sex and looks back with joy and fondness on the incidents concerned”. If, despite that, we still maintain that Bowie should have acted differently, are we not patriarchally denying her right to her sexuality? It’s like saying she has a right to choose who to have sex with but she doesn’t have a right to actually experience her choice (because if her chosen partner cooperates he will be vilified or even criminalised). Saying he should’ve acted differently is basically saying it should not have happened, which is in direct opposition to Lori’s wishes. I don’t think that’s morally right.


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