It’s good to subvert people’s expectations. What you see is not always what you get, and that’s the way it should be.
When we were just breaking away from the war-ravaged Forties, emerging into the Fifties, the decade that was filled with colour after years of drabness, people still weren’t quite ready for what the Sixties would bring. It was too early. Here are a couple of songs from the Fifties, and remember that, although it’s hard for us born later to really understand, these were considered shocking at the time:
[Little Richard, Lucille]
[Elvis Presley, Hound Dog]
In the Sixties, everything changed. We had Op Art – strange optical illusions that made your eyes see things that weren’t there, or made you perceive movement in perfect stillness, or colour where no colours were present. But musicians, although beginning to branch out – think of the hippie movement, the Flower Children – were still quite clean cut. Even though at this time, we had acts such as the Stones, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, when we think of “Sixties music”, the sort of thing that springs to mind is likely to be something like this:
[The Mamas and the Papas, California Dreamin’]
But then we also have this:
[Janis Joplin, Try (just a little bit harder)]
There’s a reason people who lived through the Sixties wax lyrical about the music of that time. There was just so much of it!
In the Seventies, everything changed again. We now had glam rock. Musicians, mostly men, wearing flamboyant clothes, glitter and make-up and relying on the necessary (and, at the time, inevitable) shock value to add impact to their image. People who grew up in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties certainly weren’t prepared for what happened, and it made the shock value all the more profitable – and desirable – to those who were making the music.
[T-Rex, Get It On]
[Roxy Music, Ladytron]
(It’s true: the Seventies were nuts.)
And by the late Seventies, we had punk, and the following link may not be what you’re expecting:
[Adam and the Ants, Car Trouble]
In the Eighties, we had post-punk and the New Romantics (a movement that began with the Blitz kids). More men wearing make-up. Electronics added something otherworldly – creepy? – to the sound. Adam and the Ants, moving on from punk to embrace a wider audience, added a tribal element to the mix with their Burundi-inspired double-drum soundscape. Boy George confused a generation of young men and inspired the same generation of young women by making himself beautiful – and vulnerable.
[Culture Club, Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?]
[Adam and the Ants, Kings of the Wild Frontier]
Many of these Eighties bands were heavily influenced by the previous two decades, especially the Seventies, and added something of their own to it. For the rest of the Eighties, musicians had a lot to live up to:
[Adam and the Ants, Ants Invasion]
[Then Jerico, The Big Area]
[Sisters of Mercy, This Corrosion]
The Nineties were different again; as a reaction to what some saw as a fairly “safe” music mainstream – Britpop in the UK, for instance – we now had bands such as Placebo and Suede emerging, taking risks, wearing dresses and make-up and singing about nancy boys and gay sex.
[Placebo, Nancy Boy]
[Suede, Animal Nitrate]
And we also had beautiful Finnish men singing about death:
[HIM, Death is in Love With Us]
But the one constant who had been with us since the Sixties, and who most definitely had been leading the way, style wise, since the early Seventies, was David Bowie.
[David Bowie, Time]
Now, recently, certain trans folk have been quick to tell feminists that they’re wrong for thinking the concept of gender identity is harmful. Just look at David Bowie, they say. He was trans positive, he had a trans lover (Romy Haag, we know, eye roll), he hung out with Jayne (formerly Wayne) County (again, we know)… and yes, many of those feminists the trans folk are trying to “educate” are themselves Bowie fans. He accumulated millions of fans over the years, many of them obsessive, from all across the globe.
So, with this in mind, we’re going to look at the concept of gender ideology through a Bowie-shaped lens. What was the message he was trying to convey? That varies, of course, depending on your point of view and where you stand politically.
[David Bowie, Fame]
Identity – this seems to be what much of the transgender movement is about. I am who I say I am and you’re in no position to refute that because I know who I am better than you do. OK. Let’s start there.
Who we are is not a given. It shifts. Mutates. Like a kaleidoscope of colours merging and separating, separating and merging, finally stopping in a particular place – and no matter where it stops, it’s never the same as any other combination of colours and shapes that’s ever existed before. Each one of us is unique. On this, the woke blokes, the transgender people and the feminists are in complete agreement. But too often, people fail to recognise sufficiently that there are also things certain groups have in common, and which bind us together. One of those commonalities is rooted in the body we were born with. Our sex.
As we grow up, we explore who we are. This exploration is in part a series of interactions with the people around us, and much of the time, the nature of these interactions is coloured by our sex and by how we are perceived by others. And then when puberty hits, we’re flooded with hormones, our bodies start changing and our sexuality develops. (Remember, I’m not talking about gender identity here. That’s a modern concept that feminists prefer to call “personality.”) But, crucially, our minds develop, as well. As we seek to separate ourselves from our families, and become autonomous human beings, we start to question who we truly are. And those questions lead us to some strange places. Some frightening places. Why do I feel this way? Am I the only one? Are there others like me? Everyone else seems to be having an easy time, so why is life so hard for me?
[David Bowie, Changes]
These are the questions that every young person going through puberty asks. And yet certain people use that same shared sense of isolation and disconnect to manipulate young people into believing the rest of us don’t share their sense of isolation at puberty. It invites them into an ideology that promotes the misguided idea they can literally be whatever they would prefer to be. That if you like boy things, that means you’re a boy; if you like girl things, that means you’re a girl. Feminists believe this is the kind of sexist claptrap that they have been fighting against for centuries.
Although we may not suffer from exactly the same kind of isolation as that felt by these young people – times change – the notion that any of us goes through life without these feelings of isolation and struggle with our own internal sense of who we are is patently nonsense.
David Bowie was practically the walking embodiment of this feeling. Whether or not he felt that way himself is irrelevant – he told a lot of fibs, and the fibs were part of his image. But one thing we do know is that he never stopped asking questions. He never stopped exploring. To try to find out who he was and who we all are, he peered into the darkest recesses, those none of us really wants to look into. He did it for us. He went there, he came back and he showed us what he’d seen. He never claimed to understand it, but he was always eager to share what he’d found.
His final album, Blackstar, was perhaps his way of giving us the sum of everything he’d learnt about himself over the course of his long career by asking all those questions. Who am I? What is my purpose in life? What am I here to do?
Did I change the world?
[David Bowie, Loving the Alien]
As regards that last, for many of us, the answer is yes. He did. He changed our world. Because he told us we could look at things in a different way but without ever telling us how it was done. For many fans, Bowie’s message seemed to be that we could – and indeed should – flip what was expected of us and turn it upside down, forcing people to look at us – and themselves – in a different way. That way wasn’t prescribed for us. It just said, “Look. What do you see? How does it make you feel?”
When someone says, “I am X,” and we perceive something different, our minds do a double-take. What you see isn’t necessarily what’s there. A skilled actor can make you believe they’re someone else, suspend disbelief. A skilled mime artist can make you see a gate as they pretend to walk through it, a car as they pretend to drive it, an invisible key as it unlocks an invisible door. We know those things aren’t really there. Like those Magic Eye pictures that were all the rage in the Nineties, what we see depends partly on how we look. We can change our depth perception and see something different. We can look at a pane of glass, or we can look through it and see what’s beyond. (That’s how those Magic Eye pictures worked, for those who could never figure it out. You had to look through them, not at them.)
David Bowie showed us that if we looked at something in a different way to how we’d been taught to look at it, perhaps we’d see something different. Perhaps we’d see what was really there, hiding just beneath the surface. Perhaps we’d see something no one else had ever seen. But we had to really look.
[David Bowie, Ashes to Ashes]
This, I suspect, is one reason transgender people use the example of Bowie to “explain” to us why they’re not what we perceive them to be – rather, they are precisely, and only, what they perceive themselves to be. Nothing more, nor less. Some of us will be afraid to look more closely, for fear of what we might see. So, should we look they way they say we should? Or should we subvert? Look differently? Think for ourselves? Seek what’s really underneath?
We’ll always see something, but can we be certain that what we see is real? Because as well as looking to find something no one else has seen, we can also fool ourselves into seeing something that really isn’t there at all. Think of that invisible key in that invisible lock, opening that invisible door.
Those glam rockers in the Seventies – starting with David Bowie and Marc Bolan – dressed in a way that made people look. Made people think. Some were afraid of what they saw, and looked away. Perhaps it shocked them to the core, or made them angry. Others looked, and liked what they found. Either way, the kids loved it. And parents – with the odd (very odd) exception – were terrified. Were these the ch-ch-ch-changes Bowie had told us about? What the devil was going on?
But what none of those glamsters asked us to believe was that they were anything other than what they were. The message was – and remains, for many – that you could be as weird as you liked, that masculinity and femininity were irrelevant and sometimes even undesirable. Some said masculinity was a joke, something to be made fun of. For a while, in the Seventies, the most manly thing a man could do was wear make-up. (Bolan alone must have sent sales of glitter soaring.)
[T-Rex, Children of the Revolution]
Bowie often looked out at his audiences and saw hundreds of clones of himself. And he loved that fans were taking what he was doing and running with it. He thought that was fabulous. They were themselves, but more sparkly, more glittery versions of themselves. Louder, and much harder to ignore.
In 1980–81, Adam Ant wore a white war stripe across his nose, partly as a big “fuck you” to the corrupt music industry and partly as homage to the warriors he was trying to emulate for his stage persona. For me, this was the first time I had seen a good-looking man with make-up that made me sit up and really look. I was six years old. I knew even at that young age it was subversive. It was dangerous. And I also knew I found it attractive. I still do.
[Adam and the Ants, Ant Rap, 1981]
Radical feminism has no problem with men wearing make-up and outlandish clothes. For a certain type of women, it’s the most attractive thing! Feminism wants to do away with restrictive norms of behaviour laid out for both men and women, which for an inordinately long time had been considered indispensable. There is no need to create new categories, which are just as restrictive as the old ones – many would say more so. Part of Bowie’s message was that we don’t need to be hemmed in by these categories. We can escape the boxes, break out of them and subvert expectations., while remaining fundamentally what we are – a man or a woman.
One thing Bowie never advocated was sticking rigidly to sex stereotypes. Androgyny was the name of the game for most of the Seventies, and for most of the Eighties, as well. (“Wow, she’s nice! Oh, it’s– That’s a dude.”)
[Aerosmith, Dude Looks Like A Lady]
And that was true subversion of expectations. It forced people to question themselves, and sometimes also their sexuality. And questioning yourself, though perhaps an uncomfortable experience, is a good thing. And (going out on a limb here, bear with me) one of the reasons it’s good is precisely because it’s uncomfortable.
[David Bowie, Rebel Rebel]
Here’s a quote from Bowie: “Always go a little further into the water than you feel capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth, and when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.”
[Alice Cooper, The Ballad of Dwight Fry]
Being uncomfortable can, therefore, be a positive thing, as long as our personal safety is not at risk. Being uncomfortable can arouse our curiosity. Bowie taught us to figure out who, and perhaps also what, we are. But he also taught us that other people’s perceptions of us are unpredictable. And this is a good thing. The confusion arising from these varied perceptions is part of what makes us human. That confusion can keep us guessing for years. Bowie certainly used those notorious fibs of his to that effect. He was an artist. His whole life was part of that art.
Fuck, he even made art out of his own death:
[David Bowie, Lazarus]
So now, let’s come back to Romy Haag and Jayne County. Both of these individuals were transsexuals, and it was precisely that, I suspect, that would have drawn David Bowie to them. They were different. They were interesting. Neither was what they initially appeared to be.
People – all sorts of people – fascinated Bowie. He was often called a chameleon, but actually, that description annoyed him; a chameleon changes in order to blend in. But Bowie wasn’t a chameleon. He was a magpie. He stole ideas. (In 1979, Adam Ant even wrote a song about his idea-stealing propensities, called Zerox.)
[Adam Ant, Zerox]
David Bowie would hear a riff, or see an image, and ask himself how he could use it. He once said, “The only art I’ll ever study is stuff that I can steal from.” He wasn’t coy about it, he was very open; and when he did this, he turned it around – subverted it – so that it became uniquely Bowie. Subversion became his trademark, and is one reason so many people loved him, and why his influence will continue to spread. As long as people want to subvert, they will be drawn to David Bowie.
Bowie didn’t try to be like Romy Haag or Jayne County, but he stole from them both. Watch this, and note the costume changes:
[David Bowie, Boys Keep Swinging]
Some of us are different, whether we like it or not. Some of us stand out for our personalities. Others stand out because of the way we dress, or the way we do our make-up; for our brains; for our magnetism. And humans have always decorated ourselves for one reason or another. It’s what we do.
[David Bowie, The Heart’s Filthy Lesson]
The filthy lesson of the heart, Bowie once said, was that you’re going to die. And because we’re all going to die one day, why not celebrate our lives together? Why not celebrate the complexity and wonder of being fully human while we can? Nature has already given us so much to celebrate! Human beings come in various shapes, sizes and colours. We’re already so diverse and wonderful; we have endless material for art and self-expression. We can dress however we want – we don’t need to pretend to be something else when what we are is already so fascinating.
In the end, it was Bowie’s fascination with people, especially with those who don’t quite fit, that made him the incredible artist he was – why so many of us feel such a deep connection, not just with his art, but with Bowie as a person – whoever he may have been. We can embrace our differences, celebrate them; and through our differences, we can find unity.
Please – and this is a sincere request – don’t use my love of Bowie to tell me why I’m wrong about identity politics. Let’s love Bowie together, in our own way, and do our best to understand what it was he was trying to tell us.
And remember that, in the end, we can’t change who or what we are – but we can express ourselves however we damn well please. And no one can stop us from doing that.
[David Bowie, Heroes]