One of the things I always liked about David Bowie was that he was the first major pop star to come out in print, and he still managed to stonewall and tap-dance his way out of identity politics for forty-five fucking years.

For those who were not around at the time -- I wasn't -- and are less obsessive than I am about tracking down old industry rags, the article that started the whole uproar ran in January 1972, in a magazine called Melody Maker. Originally a wholesome look at the socially-acceptable pop music of the day, in the late '60s it took a turn for the grown-up. Relatively speaking, anyway. It was fanwank, but slightly older fanwank than you'd expect from Tiger Beat. (Or whatever they publish that in now. Last time I knew was back in high school; my sister subscribed to a couple of them.) It didn't aspire to serious reporting like Rolling Stone, or to being culture critics like NME today; it was just aimed away from teenyboppers and more at readers in their late-teens and early twenties, who would get your drug references and didn't mind if you let people swear occasionally in their interviews.

The piece itself does not reflect what an impact the statement made. Showcasing their complete and utter lack of journalistic instincts, Melody Maker appeared to give slightly less of a shit about Bowie's declaration than they did about his interview suit -- sans shirt, as per the photo -- and wacky new alien-clown hair. The reporter's sly wink at the things one must do to be appropriately outré in rock these days gives the impression that either he doesn't believe it and thinks Bowie's just running his mouth for the shock value, or that he doesn't really care. The lion's share of the column inches in that thing are devoted to actual music (God, if only media dedicated to music would actually talk about fucking music, they never do that anymore), with second place going to a loving description of basically everything the author has ever seen him wear.

What it did was stir up a tempest in a teapot. For quite a long time, you couldn't print the words 'David Bowie' without getting 'bisexual' in the sentence somewhere. Articles would come out about the release of his new album -- which had nothing to do with sexuality at all, except in the generic sense that all pop music is about sex -- and it would get a mention in the headline.

This annoyed the ever-living shit out of Bowie. People just would not quit prodding him about it, as if they thought it had to be the single greatest influence on anything he ever did. What was it like, they asked, to be the mysterious alien creature known as 'a bisexual'? Do you breathe oxygen, too? What do you think of all of us normal human beings, swimming around outside your magical bubble?

Bowie said, right up front, in that same MM interview, in that same goddamn paragraph, that he was totally uninterested in tribal affiliation and taking sides and speaking for people and being some kind of figurehead. He had no intention of being an activist or fighting any kind of good fight. It was not the center of his world. That interview specifically was done as promotion for The Rise And Fall of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, a concept album that tells the story of a spaceman rock-'n'-roller who is adored to the point where the public considers him a messiah, and when he starts to believe it himself, it gets him killed. The whole point is that it is a bad idea to let yourself rise to head a mob and start thinking you can speak for the contents thereof.

Yes, yes, said the press. But as a clear representative of and role model for bisexuals everywhere, what would you like to say about it?

After determining that no, nobody out there seemed to be familiar with the concept of dramatic irony, Bowie just flat refused to comment. For several years, anything that involved the word 'bisexual' was met with an irritable 'asked and answered, next question'. He'd interrupt reporters mid-sentence if he had to. In 1983, he gave an interview to Rolling Stone where he said that telling the MM reporter that he was bi was the biggest mistake he ever made. I have no idea if this was marketing in an attempt to make people leave him the hell alone, or if Bowie had genuinely decided he was straight at that point -- you are allowed to change your mind on stuff like this -- and hoped saying so would make the topic boring again.

In either case, it didn't work. He spent about twenty years swatting down every attempt to talk to him about it. Staying the fuck out of things was an interesting tactic for him to take; true to his word, Bowie was never an activist, but this is the same guy who flipped another 1983 interview with MTV around by asking Mark Goodman 'you lot never play anything by black artists, why is that?' and then giving him the beady side-eye the entire time Goodman tried desperately to explain it without admitting they were afraid that if they played anything by Prince, the racists wouldn't give them money anymore.

His absolute refusal to comment on That One Thing forced people who were genuinely curious to separate out their questions about gender identity and gender expression from needling him about his sexuality. For all the snark he got, nobody really seriously suggested that Bowie was anything but a man who liked decorating himself outlandishly. He even takes the time to point out in the MM article that the dress he's wearing on the UK cover to The Man Who Sold The World is his dress, and therefore a man's dress, which was at odds with the idea, widespread at the time, that gay men secretly wanted to be women. (It's a gorgeous dress and I want one, but that's beside the point.) He also pointed out repeatedly over the course of his career that, while a lot of his early looks were inspired by the pageantry of drag shows, he was never actually in drag on stage -- he was dressed as one of his characters or as himself, none of whom were meant to be either women or female impersonators.

(I confess that part of the reason I'm fascinated with this is that the one quirk in my boring straightness is that I like men who enjoy decorating themselves as much as I do. It's widely perceived as effeminate, but that's cultural; there's nothing inherently female about painting your face and wearing baubles. If you asked a peacock, he'd wonder why so many human women drag up as colorful shiny men. I'm just trained in sociology and have an academic and perhaps borderline-unhealthy drive to pick apart my own inner workings. And an understandable inclination to look at people I think are pretty.)

Bowie did eventually mellow on it a bit, mainly after the world had calmed down about it enough that people would talk to him about the overall context of his life and early work rather than slobbering all over him like Louella Parsons with a looming deadline. The 30th anniversary of the Melody Maker article was commemorated on davidbowie.com with a scan of the splash page in 2002, when Bowie was still very much in charge of his own website. (Not the nuts and bolts of it, obviously, but he did keep a sort of mini-blog there, and was notorious for popping up in the chatrooms to talk to whatever randoms were around when he was home and bored. He had one screen name that everyone knew about, a couple that the regulars suspected, and claimed to have a few more that nobody ever made.) He did an interview with Blender the same year in which someone managed to ask him a reasonable question about the Rolling Stone piece; he opted to give an answer that time, and did so occasionally thereafter.

The phrasing of many of his later comments on the topic leave me with the impression that he didn't think the 'bisexual' label was inaccurate so much as completely irrelevant and not even a millionth as interesting as everyone else thought it was. You could call him whatever you wanted as long as you didn't pester him about it. Notably, he never denied having slept around with men as well as women, nor expressed regret over any of his personal investigation -- just kicked himself for having blabbed about it, since it made his life inordinately difficult for a while. He apparently thought he was sharing an interesting fact about himself and his own weird inner workings, and hadn't realized that everyone else would treat it as a flying banner of identity, as if it was the only interesting thing about his personality.

I have nothing but respect and admiration for this stance, because I loathe identity politics. It is the single most effective way ever invented to Balkanize the human race. Someday, it will get us all killed. Every fucking thing that's ever been said, done, or thought in the history of homo sapiens sapiens is analyzed endlessly in the context of whether it's for or against some giant, formless, faceless group of people -- and on top of that, you're expected to meta-evaluate whether anything you do, for any reason, is likely to hit an unpleasant button in the brain of someone else you've probably never met, whom you must treat at all times as a cardinal representative of a group you've never been in and possibly have never even heard of, and who will themselves evaluate all of your actions as if you personally represent any groups they think you might be a part of. It is an endlessly neurotic hall of mirrors, and we're letting it run our goddamn government, all of academia, and whatever bits of tumblr aren't dedicated to gifs of cats falling off of things. It's good to consider the feelings of the people around you, but there is a limit to what one can reasonably be expected to do.

I was incredibly insulted when I started seeing people insist on "person-first" language. It implied that I was incapable of realizing that you had to be a human being first before you could have a cultural affiliation or a sexual orientation or a mental illness or whatever. Who the fuck starts out an interaction just assuming that the other guy has no capacity for empathy? How arrogant do you have to be, and how low an opinion must you have of the rest of the human race, to take it upon yourself to didactically remind everyone you meet that the rest of the world is not composed of paper cutouts placed there for their amusement? How paranoid must you be, to feel you have to scrupulously and continuously signal in conversation your own awareness that other people actually exist for really reals, just in case the other person's assumptions about you are as scurrilous as your assumptions about them? 

Then I realized that other people apparently do have issues remembering this, and now I'm just sad.

I keep wanting to grab people by the shoulders and shake them and shout YOU ARE NOT AN ADJECTIVE! Or even the sum of a bunch of them! But existing as a Venn diagram of empty circles representing membership cards and tribal associations seems to make other people happy, so I suppose it's not my fight. And it wasn't Bowie's fight, either.

Way back in the early '70s, someone on TV tried to get him to sum up his entire outrageous existence in one word. He floundered for a second and finally just pronounced himself 'David Bowie'. Not only do I think this is an eminently sensible stance to take, but that it is possibly the only one you can take without driving yourself completely goddamn insane. You live and die by the opinions of one other person, we call it co-dependent, and send you to therapy. Live and die by the opinions of a hoard of faceless and possibly imaginary people whose only bond is that they all happen to share an adjective, and we claim this is the just and correct way to run human society. I'm not saying that you should tear through the world not giving a fuck if you hurt anyone else. Just that the monkeysphere is only so big, and you can only manage the expectations of so many other people at a time without sending your look-ahead systems into deadlock.

Comments