We Need Better Heroes Than David Bowie

To escape David Bowie’s lingering presence online today, I took a break from my desk today to go to the water cooler. No luck – he was there too. Bowie-themed parties are springing up, oldies are crying themselves to sleep, youngsters who only have a vague idea of who Bowie was are dressing like Ziggy Stardust, and public figures from Kanye to David Cameron have been penning heartrending 140-word tributes.

Maybe I missed the memo when everyone agreed that rock stars, like the Pope, are infallible, but all this gushing has me perplexed. I can hardly believe the blind Bowie worship clogging my dash. It’s as if by dying, he has been completely decontextualised.

We live in a world where schoolgirls’ t-shirts and Renee Zellweger’s face are unforgivable, but an influential grown-up man having sex with an underage girl is conveniently forgotten. If this isn’t evidence of rape culture, I don’t know what is.

Let’s put this to bed, so to speak. Even though Lori Maddox has always maintained that her encounters with Bowie were consensual (e.g. here and here), sex with children – even children who appear to be willing – is against the law, and the law is there to protect minors from sexual abuse and emotional abuse, e.g. coercion. It’s for the adult to consider the impact of their influence on the psyche of a young person, and to do the responsible thing and keep it in their pants. Our culture allows very rich, very famous, very powerful men to commit sex crimes, and go for years without being called to account, if at all. Wholehearted Bowie idolatry is part of this.

But Bowie is a queer icon! I hear you cry. He unlocked the dressing up box, rhapsodises Grayson Perry (who is married to a cisgender lady called Philippa, and is over-fond of the slur ‘tranny’). Um, no, I’m afraid not. Check this Rolling Stone interview of 1983, in which Bowie disavows his supposed queerness, and the reporter frames bisexuality as one of ‘the old poses’. Queerness reduced to a publicity stunt, sigh. There are better queer icons out there (including some who are queer).

That said, I have a volume of notorious fascist and anti-semite Ezra Pound’s poetry on my bookshelf. Pound was a disgusting excuse for a human being; the poems are beautiful. The Well of Loneliness was a groundbreaking queer text cherished by many, but Radclyffe Hall denounced the Suffragettes for being unpatriotic, and was viciously anti-Jewish. Parks and Rec still makes me feel happy after a hard day at the office, despite Amy Poehler’s particularly virulent strain of White Feminism. It’s good to enjoy things, but enjoying them shouldn’t mean we aren’t willing to learn more about the politics that produced our favourites, and how they could be better.

There’s a distinction we need to make in our tributes to Bowie. Yes, he was a great performer and of great cultural importance, and it’s ok to enjoy his music, watch his films, or take fashion inspiration from him. But an artist is not the same thing as their art, and good art can be made by bad people. Celebrating culture doesn’t mean that we cannot simultaneously contextualise people, situating them and their actions in the broader view of their social and political impact.

So, some good things Bowie did: made music and films that made people feel good, confronted MTV about its blatant racism, turned pop culture into real culture, publicised queer culture, and probably had many good times with his friends and family. Some bad things Bowie did: statutory rape, appropriation of queer culture, and the minor crime of that mullet. Let’s talk about all these things.

Words by Flo Reynolds