David Bowie was a complicated and fascinating public figure. He was heavily political in various different ways throughout his career, and always seemed to be wrapped in layer upon layer of art and aesthetics and half-truths and exaggerations. He wore his sexuality like statement clothing – out and proud and visible, but changeable at will. The only thing that never changed about him was his extraordinary impact, not only on the music industry but on popular culture in general.
Just yesterday I was listening to Moonage Daydream. It’s an incredible song; his music is incredible as a whole. It’s so easy to forget that this song is 45 years old – that it’s extremely rare for music to last the test of time in the way that Bowie’s has. Of course there are other artists from the same period who we celebrate and who remain relevant, but he’s one of very few regardless. How often does music manage to be unususal, transgressive and popular on its release date, let alone nearly half a century later?
For saying I run a film blog, I’m sorry to say I’m not as familiar with Bowie’s work as an actor as I am with his music. Of course the exception is Labyrinth – but even that I came to late. I was eighteen or nineteen when I saw it. I’d flown to the US alone to meet some internet friends. It was on the second leg of the trip that I horrified my hostess when she found out I hadn’t seen it; she’d taken me to the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, and they had an exhibition on the work of Jim Henson.
We had a busy week planned, but this was enough of a crime against cinema that we just had to slow down and take a few hours out to watch this movie. I’m often wary of being introduced to classic movies I didn’t see when I was younger; people’s nostalgia can sometimes be the only redeeming thing about them. I was nervous enough being out on my own on the other side of the world. The last thing I needed was to have to politely feign interest in someone’s childhood favourite. In this case, however, I was assured I’d like it. After all, David Bowie was in it.
And of course, I did. It’s bizarre and bold and brilliant.
Labyrinth highlights one of the things I like most about Bowie. He wasn’t afraid to make weird choices, even if they were very weird. In fact, his career was built on them. Every time he took another step it could have backfired in his face, but he kept on taking them anyway. As mentioned earlier, he made a banner out of bisexuality, which may or may not have been his true identity – and then later admitted that it may have cost him opportunities in the US.
Declaring himself queer at all was surely a dangerous move. Homosexuality was only decriminalised in the UK a month or so after the release of his debut album in 1967. To delve into androgynous/genderfuck territory and loudly announce that his alias was bisexual only two years later had to have been quite brave, regardless of whether it was true or a headline-grabbing taboo. Even today you still hear stories about record labels encouraging their musicians to stay in the closet, and actors like Matt Damon talk about coming out as a potentailly career-killing move.
In any case. Whether he did it for headlines, record sales, politics, his image or a genuine desire to expand the cultural mainstream, and however problematic some of those possible reasons may be, David Bowie was certainly responsible for carving out a space for alternative identities in the public eye. He used his musical genius to make queerness cool to people who might never have encountered it before, and made it visible for people who might never have believed they’d see themselves onstage, or believed they’d only ever exist in the fringes.
He was a pioneer, an artist and an icon. He’s certainly a personal hero of mine, and the world is less colourful and creative without him. I hope his family are able to take comfort in the powerful legacy he left behind. He was, after all, a Starman, and footprints made on the moon remain there forever. Rest in peace.