On Sunday night, David Bowie, one of the most versatile, unique, and courageous performance artists of the twentieth century, died at 69. He leaves behind five decades of recorded music, from his garage rock band Davie Jones and the King Bees, who recorded their first and only single when Bowie was 17 years old, to the gorgeous (and hip-hop inspired) farewell album Blackstar, released two days before his death. The past several days have seen tributes by everyone from Kendrick Lamar to David Cameron. We could spend the next several weeks discussing the bizarre honesty and profound genius that characterized his constantly transforming and relevant art, or the immeasurable impact he had on every contemporary form of popular music. But even more significant and worthy of celebration was his his role as a cultural revolutionary. As one of the most radical and successful queer artists of all time, David Bowie was a manifestation of the struggle against assimilation that will define any significant queer movement in the twenty-first century.
Bowie is certainly an imperfect revolutionary role model. He rarely used his celebrity for political activism, saying in 1977, “The more I travel and the less sure I am about exactly which political philosophies are commendable.” He was nominally an anti-imperialist, refusing a knighthood and the honorary title Commander of the British Empire in 2003, but he was also a devoted capitalist whose art was commercialized, making hundreds of millions of dollars not just for himself and an exploitative industry, but for Wall Street investors. But despite these shortcomings, Bowie dedicated his artistry and his life to the struggle against the oppression of sexuality that Western society has used to preserve structures of power for millennia, and deserves to be remembered as a hero of the revolution.
In 1972, only four years after male homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK (it was still illegal in 47 US states), David Bowie came out as gay to Melody Maker magazine. At the time he was a moderately successful pop star, best known for his hit “Space Oddity” which the BBC had used as theme music for the moon landings in 1969, with a lot to gain and a lot to lose. Though the singer had already been performing in silk dresses, like one pictured on the cover of his 1970 album The Man Who Sold The World, this public acknowledgement of his unconventional sexuality was the beginning of the Bowie’s true artistic and sexual revolution. Later that year he adopted the character of Ziggy Stardust, a bisexual alien rockstar, for his now-legendary album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. The album was a rock opera that accompanied a complex stage show that was heavily influenced (both in musical and performance style) by the drag performers who had been a staple of queer entertainment and the sex industry for decades and in particular the glam rockers who were taking over the New York underground at the time. His costumes shattered any and all preheld concepts of gender and fashion, and he used his remarkable lead guitarist, Mick Ronson, as a sexual foil onstage (Ronson’s role in Ziggy’s Spiders was that of Queenie, the Infinite Fox). Even after he ceremonially executed Ziggy in 1973, Bowie maintained his sexual ambiguity and homoeroticism throughout the many phases of his career.
By attaching himself to New York’s glam rock scene, Bowie was pledging allegiance not only to a queer movement, but a new and radical force for cultural revolution. While sexually repressed men had sought out cross-dressing sex workers and entertainers for centuries, the late sixties saw a massive migration of young and politically radicalized queer people into cities who would drastically change the queer community. Young people in the height of the countercultural movement were coming to terms with their true sexualities, which of course were radically different from culturally scripted heterosexuality. With other young radicals, they were abandoning the suburbs of the imperialist American dream and moving en masse to urban centers, especially New York and San Francisco. While most of these white, middle class youths would soon abandon the demands of a countercultural war and return to the shelter of bourgeois ignorance, those who had openly embraced revolutionary sexuality had crossed a line that was not so easily forgiven. So they settled in queer colonies, where many of them adopted drag performance and combined it with their generation’s rock and roll. Glam rock was born from the last survivors of a failed social revolution, and it was the music of people who understood that sexuality is profoundly political.
At the forefront of this movement was Bowie’s artistic icon, the incomparable Lou Reed. Reed moved to New York from Long Island, and started his paradigm-shifting band, the Velvet Underground, in 1965. Their dissonant sound and sexually explicit lyrics drew the attention of gay art royalty Andy Warhol, who adapted them into his multimedia show, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, and produced their 1967 debut album. While well known in the New York underground and the world of avant-garde art, Reed and the Velvets scared away mainstream consumers and record labels with their overt queerness and unpolished sound, and the disillusioned singer-songwriter took a job as a typist at an accounting firm after quitting the band in 1970. In 1972, however, Ziggy-era Bowie produced and sang on Reed’s album Transformer, which included “Walk On The Wild Side,” an ode to New York’s drag community that became a surprise hit and revitalized Reed’s career. The two artists remained friends and collaborators for decades. Like Bowie, Lou Reed celebrated the revolutionary act of being queer (even after his parents submitted him to electroshock therapy) in a society constantly trying to suppress it.
Queerness is inherently a threat to imperialist structures of power. By questioning the culture’s mandate of compulsory heterosexuality, queer people point out the contradictions and constraints of the base unit of capitalism, the Nuclear Family (an institution, which, as Andrew Cherlin discusses brilliantly, has never reflected sociological reality). They prove that conventional divisions of power and labor (in which men are responsible for economic production while women perform domestic production without capital compensation) are not an inevitability, a fact that, as sociologists since Engels have understood, completely undermines not only patriarchy but industrial capitalism. And they shatter societal scripts for gender, which do not and have never reflected biological realities, but instead serve to weaponize men and enslave women. Accepting that gender and sexuality are unique experiences and political weapons entirely independent of any cultural dogma is an essential first step in any liberation from the cult of imperialism.
To combat this threat, the establishment has several options. It could kill all of those who have the courage to express their queerness (by, say, specifically denying them health care and medical research, or by training men to kill them, or just by training them to kill themselves). Or it could neutralize the revolutionary element of queerness through the slow cultural genocide of assimilation, of blending into the dominant and oppressive culture. The first step in this process was the corporatization of the queer movement. The Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT advocacy group in the world, now counts such international criminal organizations as Coca-Cola, Northrop Grumman, CitiGroup, BP, and Nike as its corporate partners, and as a result, they are deeply invested in a violent status quo, and have sacrificed their potential for revolution. This accompanies the culture’s double campaign of terrorism and coercion: constant threats of violence convince queer people that they can do no more than ask for acceptance at the cost of their conformity, and in exchange for this submission the political establishment offers them membership in the empire’s ruling class.
And the results are obvious. The movement they spearhead now not only embraces specific labels for sexuality (in a model that would have horrified queer radicals of the seventies), it calls them “goals.” Modern queer activists do not only embrace commercial beauty standards that produce misogyny and anorexia, they advertise them. The contemporary movement does not just accept an apolitical approach to sexuality, but they rely on it with its message “It’s just who you love.” The entire history of queer revolution is now at risk of being consumed, as so many revolutions before it, in the comforts of bourgeois imperial living that have been offered to queer people only buy our into silence.
This is not the queer culture that David Bowie embodied, helped create, and thrust down the throat of a world reeling in shock after the death of the 60s. It is not the unapologetic subversiveness of a male singer simulating oral sex with an electric guitar in front of thousands of men who could spend 5 to 20 years in prison for consenting to such an act from another man in New York City. It is not the courageous movement that battled to save lives from government inaction that he espoused in 80s (watch his incredible performance at the memorial concert for Freddie Mercury, who died of AIDS in 1991). It is not the fluidity and freedom from inhibition of a man who married two women, one of whom shared the last 25 of his life, and regularly joked that he and his wives “met while fucking the same bloke.”
David Bowie understood the artistic beauty of sexual liberation and personal honesty, and he understood the political power of his own sexuality. The power, the freedom, the irreplaceable connection to the self that defined his art would all be lost with the death of a queer revolutionary movement. And he personified that movement, not by checking off a box, not by joining a herd, but by asking himself, every day, “What is the last thing that the culture would expect from me today?” and then doing it. And so, queer revolutionaries, take time this week to honor him by asking yourself “What would David Bowie do?”