In our second guest blog post on Bowie and gender, Georgia Walker Churchman asks uncomfortable questions about how we understand the links between the man’s life and his art.
Anyone who’s been reading around the death of David Bowie will have been inundated with thoughts that touch, in one way or another, on the Thin White Duke and gender.
The first that I had, when asked to write a blog about him, was this: ‘how can I possibly contribute anything at all to the thousands upon thousands of blog-posts, articles, tweets and status updates that have come about in the wake of his death? How can anything I write attest further to his importance to the queer community, to transfolk, to those who simply identified as oddballs, to the people who were not sure if they were a boy or a girl (or were both, or neither); also to those who had felt miserably, woodenly, certain of the gender that had been assigned to them; to those who never felt particularly circumscribed by their gender, but loved his music?’
My own relationship with Bowie is both intense and somewhat precarious. I barely listened to his work as a teenager – I worshipped at the altar of David Byrne – but made a project of familiarising myself with his music in the last year or so, partially as an exercise in self-improvement, and partially because I became possessed with the video for ‘Be My Wife’, from Low. The project turned into a love affair (surely this is how everyone who pays attention to music hopes that their self-improvement projects will end), and thus I was still in the obsessive, burningly desirous stage of art-crush when he died. This is perhaps why his death hit me hard – I felt as if someone that I was in the process of getting to know had been cruelly snatched away from me, snatched away before I had a concrete notion of how far this exciting new relationship could go.
It was a day or so after that the thought struck me: ‘please God let there be no horrible revelations about his sex life’.
By coincidence, that was also the day that the details of his abusive relationship with a fourteen year-old fan, Lori Maddox, hit my radar; a few days later, a rape charge filed during the Glass Spider tour came to light (the charges were dropped, but as the blogger linked to here says, this doesn’t mean that they didn’t happen). Thus, it became clear that to talk about, to mourn – even to think critically about – the Bowie legend is not simply a problem of how to contribute to the iconography of a pop-star, but to engage with the complexities of responding to the death of an idol without betraying the people that he hurt.
The issue this raises for me is how to think through abuse in the context of both an oeuvre and a genre that deliberately troubles the boundaries between the work of art and the person who makes it. In my own discipline, English Literature, using biographical material as the basis for an interpretation of the work of art is frowned upon: we may know a great deal about the circumstances of an individual writer’s life, but it is considered gauche to base an interpretation of an individual text on biographical material alone. It’s a habit, along with comma-splicing and substituting ‘the subconscious’ for ‘the unconscious’, for which I mentally use the hashtag #firstyearproblems. Ideally, as I explain to my students every year, we should judge the art, not the artist (sadly but unsurprisingly, ‘ideally’ in this context usually means that you’re not allowed to judge misbehaviour too harshly if the miscreant is dead, white, male and right-wing).
As I discuss shortly, however, Bowie’s oeuvre, and particularly his last album, demonstrates precisely how precarious this distinction is. Thus, the problem of how to respond to his abusive behaviour becomes not just a problem of how to respond to the man, but of how to respond to his work. Blackstar draws attention to the different deaths that Bowie’s personae have undergone; furthermore, its aesthetic power depends upon an awareness of the difference between the figurative deaths of his characters, and the bodily, factual death which he was confronting while recording the album. The title track’s video stages the different iterations of Bowie’s creative life, as the spacesuit with which the video opens clearly recalls Major Tom. The trope is reiterated elsewhere on the album: the black and silver outfit in the ‘Lazarus’ video is similar to the one he wears on the sleeve of Station to Station, and the final track, ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, samples the harmonica opening of ‘A New Career In A New Town’. The play of previous identities becomes most prominent towards the middle of the ‘Blackstar’ film, in which Bowie appears to be moving through the singing voice and stage mannerisms of each of his personae in turn, beginning with the fey sincerity and cockney treble of his pre-Ziggy hippy phase, before assuming a wild-eyed parody of the cocksure confidence developed in tracks like ‘Rebel Rebel’ and ‘The Gene Jeanie’. As the video cuts away from the star’s face to a long panning shot of menacing, extraterrestrial farm country, the synth sound becomes reminiscent of ‘Warszawa’ or perhaps ‘Weeping Wall’; although his voice at this point is less noticeably an affectation of his previous styles, this fits with the overall thrust of the video, as it was at this point in his career that Bowie dropped his various disguises and began to use David Bowie as a persona in his own right.
These repeated references to Bowie’s many iterations stand in tension to the refrain of ‘Blackstar’:
in the Villa of Ormen
stands a solitary candle
At the centre of it all
The syntax here is ambiguous, leaving us wondering if ‘the centre of it all’ is the ‘solitary candle’ or ‘your eyes’. The candle is a well-known symbol for a discrete, individual life, for the immortal soul, the holy ghost, and, in phrases like ‘hiding your light under a bushel’, the individual talent. However, if ‘your eyes’ is the central image, (whose eyes? Mine? The eyes of the audience? A lover? A child? Bowie’s himself?) then the ‘centre’ from which Bowie is speaking, and to which he is addressing himself, seems to be constituted through recognition by the other. In this reading, the song is a comment on how the life of a star, black or otherwise, is dependent on the eyes trained on them throughout their career. What appears to be staged, then, is a tension between two different notions of identity. One, suggested by the candle, is of the individual life as continuous and coherent, but under imminent threat of being ‘extinguished’ or ‘snuffed out’; the other suggests that there is no such thing – that the ‘solitary candle’ of individual existence is actually constituted through a relation to a perceiving and perceived other. However, the tension is resolved outside the text, precisely because the aesthetic effect here is hugely intensified by the fact of the artist’s death: it is not the case that the centre is merely the eye of the other – Bowie is dead, gone in a way that no amount of scrutiny or observation can repair. Thus, the meaning of the album depends on a real world referent: it would be a different (and lesser) work of art if Bowie were still alive.
The question that this leaves me asking is about the relation between reality and myth, imago and man.
However reprehensible you may think the allegations against Bowie are (I mention this because the precise extent of his culpability has been hotly contested) it’s clear that many of his actions were… bad. We also know that his best art (Blackstar, surely, is among his best releases) depends not on the separation of man and work or image and reality, but on the destabilising of the distinction between the two. How, then, to deal with the violence of the narratives that have surfaced in the wake of his death? Is there any ethical way of understanding Bowie’s abusive behaviour in relation to his art? Is it even ethical to attempt to do so? I think the answer to this question is simple: it’s no. It would be profoundly wrong to attempt to aestheticise his nastiest, darkest behaviour; it would be equally wrong to ignore it, to pretend that it didn’t happen. And yet, I can’t dismiss his art because of it. The irony is that the confrontation with death staged in Blackstar confirms Bowie’s status as a great artist, yet the revelations following his death also show the extent of his meanness, his capacity for selfishness, and his contempt for those around him.
This behaviour gestures towards aesthetic limits in a totally different way to the grandeur of his death statement: it speaks of the things that can’t or shouldn’t be accommodated in the acceptable narrative of the artist, or indeed of anybody else. It is undeniable that he succeeded in making art from his own death in a way that pushed the boundaries between art and reality, a way that is both grand and admirable. Equally, there is nothing grand or admirable or glamorous about fucking women who can’t or haven’t consented. It’s the behaviour of a bully, or a coward, or both. Precisely because Bowie was an artist who was so invested in unsettling the boundaries between art and life, we can’t, even from a purely aesthetic perspective, divorce his bullying and cowardice from the art he made. And, for all the reservations I’ve just articulated about the aestheticisation of his abusive behaviour, isn’t there something about the notion of death and rebirth, of the occupation of different roles at will, that allows for an evasion of personal responsibility? This is the crux of the matter: because if this is the case, is there not something about the enjoyment of such art that begins to look suspiciously similar to condoning his behaviour?
The paradox, though, is that I don’t want to end this piece by writing about the very worst aspects of the man. Instead, I want to think about the image which heads this post. It’s the opposite, I think, of what we’re meant to like about Bowie. The artificial swagger of the imaginary pirate here is obvious; the whimsy offset by ordinariness. His hair-dye looks like it was done in the bathroom sink, the teeth are still wonky, that blouse seems cheap and nylon-ish. He looks old, too: more middle-aged than the sleek ‘plastic soul’ stills taken perhaps a decade and a half later. It’s as if he is momentarily inhabiting the dream of a persona we rarely see in Bowie’s performances, although sometimes we can hear an echo of it in his lyrics – the dreams of an unglamorous, middle-aged woman. And it’s this imaginative landscape that I am particularly drawn to, of all the worlds that Bowie created – the defiant consciousness of shabbiness, the swashbuckle there is in cheapness. This is particularly true of his earlier career, when his gender identity was at its most fluid and ambiguous. What I love about Bowie’s work is the way that he saw the mundane and quotidian as full of wonder and excitement. What I hate is that this sense of potential in his work has been so radically compromised.