by Camille Paglia / The Sunday Times Magazine
10th March 2013
David Bowie burst onto the international scene at a pivotal point in modern sexual history. The heady utopian dreams of the 1960s, which saw free love as an agent of radical political change, were evaporating. Generational solidarity was proving illusory, while experimentation with psychedelic drugs had expanded identity but sometimes at a cost of disorientation and paranoia.
By the early 1970s hints of decadence and apocalypse were trailing into popular culture. Bowies prophetic attunement to this shift was registered in his breakthrough song, Space Oddity, whose wistful astronaut, Major Tom, secedes from Earth itself. Recorded several months before the Woodstock music festival in 1969, Space Oddity, with its haunting isolation and asexual purity and passivity, forecast the end of the carnival of the Dionysian 1960s.
Like Oscar Wilde, who freelanced as a fashion journalist, Bowie is a dandy for whom costume is an art form. He regarded himself as an artist who tries to capture the rate of change the theme of one of his signature songs, Changes. Music was not the only or even the primary mode through which he first conveyed his vision to the world: he was an iconoclast who was also an image-maker. His command of the visual was displayed in his acute instinct for the still camera, honed by his attentiveness to classic Hollywood publicity photographs, contemporary fashion magazines and European art films.
Bowies flair for choreography and body language had been developed by his study of pantomime and stagecraft with the innovative Lindsay Kemp troupe in London in the late 1960s. His earliest ambition was to be a painter, and he has continued to paint throughout his life especially, he has said, when he is having trouble writing songs. Multimedia approaches were gaining ascendance over the traditional fine arts in the 1960s. Working during the day at an advertising agency at the age of 16, Bowie learnt storyboarding techniques that he later employed for his videos. Both of these experiences helped foster his ambition to fuse music with visuals on stage.
As he was searching for a voice and a place in the music industry, Bowies look steadily changed. Beatifically singing Let Me Sleep Beside You for a 1969 promotional film, he appeared in the standard mod dress of open-necked floral shirt and hip-huggers, and projected the harmless, wiggly charm of the bashful boy next door. By his third album the following year, however, he had embarked on a challenging new course, putting his commercial acceptance at risk through unsettling cross-dressing scenarios.
The cover of The Man Who Sold the World shows him sporting heavy, winsome, shoulder-length locks and wearing a luxuriously patterned pink-and-blue velvet maxi-dress over tight knee-high boots normally associated with stylish young women. (This man-dress was designed by Michael Fish, who also did Mick Jaggers short white dress for the Rolling Stones free Hyde Park concert in 1969.) Bowies languidly seductive, serpentine reclining posture was so sexually radical at the time that it was vetoed by his record company for distribution in the United States. A cartoon showing the mental hospital to which Bowies half-brother, Terry, had been committed was hastily substituted.
In the close-up portrait on his next album cover for Hunky Dory (1971), Bowie adopted a dreamy expression of sentimental, heavenward yearning drawn from the lexicon of studio-era Hollywood for women stars. Also startlingly feminine is his gesture of frank self-touching, as he smooths his long blond hair back with both hands.
His loquacious wife, with her brazen verve, encouraged his androgyny
Gender roles were in flux from the mid-1960s well into the 70s due to a convergence of dissident energies from the reawakened womens movement in America and from a pop-culture revolution that had started even earlier in Britain.
The unisex crusade of the 1960s was born in mod London and spread to the world cropped haircuts, pinstriped trousers and sailors pea coats for urchin girls; crimson satin, purple velvet and flouncy Tom Jones shirts for peacock boys. But transsexual impersonation of the kind undertaken by David Bowie was something new and different.
After his half-dozen years of uneven success on the London music scene, Bowies artistic persona suddenly coalesced at the climax of the sexual revolution. The idealism of the 1960s, stoked by peaceable, communal, giddy-making marijuana, had drifted and stalled. Now dawned the cynical disillusion of the 1970s. Spontaneous romantic romps in the sunny or soggy meadows at Woodstock would yield to predatory stalking and anonymous pickups in murky, mobbed, deafening disco clubs or barricaded elite venues like Studio 54. Bowies archly knowing and seductively manipulative Ziggy Stardust sprang into being at the invisible transition into this exciting but mechanically hedonistic sexual landscape.
Bowies most famous invented character did not appear on the cover of the album that bears his name but was theatrically developed on the unusually long world tour (from January 1972 to July 1973). Ziggy became so potent an entity that he virtually annihilated his creator and spun Bowie, by his own admission, into a fragile psychological state, exacerbated by cocaine, that was near schizophrenia. Ziggys flamboyant make-up, rooster comb of spiky, razor-cut red hair and futuristic costumes designed by Kansai Yamamoto turned him into an alien rock messiah (Bowies term), leader of a band of space invaders come to redeem errant earthlings.
Bowie said Ziggy was modelled on Vince Taylor, a British-born pop singer who had lived in the United States and achieved second-tier prominence in England and France until he began to suffer drug-related religious hallucinations on stage. However, there was little sexual ambiguity in Taylors self-presentation, which surviving TV clips show to have been a straight rockabilly knock-off of Gene Vincent, a hyperactive, black-leather-clad peer of the hip-swivelling Elvis Presley.
Bowie pushed Ziggy’s gender into another dimension of space-time, where sexual personae of East and West met and melded. Then very intrigued by Asian culture, he made Ziggy a strange amalgam of samurai warrior and kabuki onnagata the male actor who played female roles in traditional Japanese theatre. (On tour in Japan in April 1973 Bowie received instruction in kabuki make-up from Tamasaburo Bando, Japans foremost living onnagata.) But his cynically suggestive stage manner was drawn from German cabaret. The film of the same name had just been released the year before, and Joel Gray would win one of its eight Oscars for his insinuating, repellently flirtatious performance as the master of ceremonies.
Weimar sleaze and nostalgie de la boue were most notoriously captured by Mick Rocks classic photo of Bowie fallen to his knees and avidly mouthing Mick Ronsons vamping guitar. The Ziggy album abounds with overtly gay references, from the provocative Put your ray gun to my head to The church of man love is such a holy place to be.
What must be observed about Bowies gender fantasia is how rarely he ever did straight drag. The significant exception was a video directed by David Mallet for Boys Keep Swinging, released in 1979, featuring a trio of hilariously bored female backing singers, each played by Bowie. The song was not released in the US because of record-company fears about the videos unpalatable transvestism.
Gender relations were also changing fast after the rebirth of feminism in the late 1960s. The subterranean disturbances in Bowies oeuvre around the issue of women and their ungovernable power can be detected in Suffragette City (from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust), with its heady refrain, Dont lean on me, man, because you cant afford the ticket back from Suffragette City! This line shows men unprepared for the shift and running around in circles like antic squirrels. The songs other blazing refrain, Wham, bam, thank you, maam! a common old American catchphrase probably about prostitution tauntingly suggests that loveless hit-and-run sex is one foolproof way to avoid swampy entrapment by women.
The megalomania and delusionalism of Ziggy Stardust marked the start of the long and confused period of gender relations that we still inhabit. The fall of the old taboos has not enhanced eroticism but perhaps done the opposite. Women have gained widespread career status, and homophobia has receded, but divorce has soared and the sexes still collide in bitter public recriminations.
By the time we saw Ziggy Stardust on the front of an album, Aladdin Sane (1973), he was already in eclipse. The cover photograph by Brian Duffy with its red-and-blue lightning bolt crossing Bowies face has become one of the most emblematic and influential art images of the past half century, reproduced or parodied in advertising, media and entertainment worldwide. It contains all of romanticism, focused on the artist as mutilated victim of his own febrile imagination. Aladdin Sane in the realm of art is a lad insane everywhere else. With his smooth, lithe, hairless body, Aladdin Sanes rouged androgyne has evolved past gender, as blatantly dramatised by the full-length picture in the inside gatefold, where Ziggys long legs and sleek, sexless torso are turning silver robotic.
A year later, Bowie returned to the Weimar sensibility for the cover of Diamond Dogs, a lurid expressionist drawing showing him with two crouching, ghoulish women depicted in half-dog form. Bowies canine loins may have been glaringly male, but the rest of him is a bitch. He wears a large loop earring, a lushly enhanced silhouette of red lipstick and lavishly teased bouffant hair. Despite his sinewy arms, the effect is sensuously female.
Young Americans, in 1975, was the last album cover that Bowie used as a gender canvas. Once again he meets the viewers eyes but no longer with the hard edge of urban prostitution seen in Diamond Dogs. It is a Hollywood glamour portrait, his short but flowing hair softly backlit to form a halo. This wistful, cloistered figure might be a kept boy or neurasthenic aesthete, like the poet Lord Alfred Douglas, who brought down Oscar Wilde.
Bowie was on a trajectory diverging from that of both feminism and the gay liberation movement
Bowies shocking proclamation of his gayness to Melody Maker in 1972 was unprecedented for a big star at the height of their fame. It was a bold and even reckless career gamble. But the overall pattern of Bowies life has been bisexual. His open marriage to the equally bisexual Angie Barnett went further toward bohemianism than did the communal 1960s hippie ménage typified by The Mamas & the Papas. His loquacious wife, with her brazen verve, encouraged his androgyny and helped costume it, notably apropos his man-dresses.
Yet despite his pioneering stand, Bowie was on a trajectory diverging from that of both feminism and the gay liberation movement. Few if any songs in Bowies great period contain a fully developed portrait of a woman, positive or negative, comparable to Bob Dylans sympathetic Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.
Bowies orientation toward fashion, glamour and Hollywood went completely against the feminist grain in the 1970s, when identity politics made a highly ideological landfall in the academic world. Although lipstick lesbians emerged in San Francisco in the late 1980s, the cult of beauty would not be restored to feminism until Madonna led the way in 1990 with her Vogue video, glamourising high fashion and Hollywood love goddesses.
Just as Bowie was debuting Ziggy Stardust, gay men were heading in a macho direction first with San Franciscos Castro Street hippie clone look of beards, T-shirts, and tight hip-hugger jeans and, later, with New Yorks Christopher Street clone uniform of thick moustaches, flannel lumberjack shirts, riveted farm jeans and work boots. Bowies first concession to this trend was the cover of Heroes (1977), where he wears a soft, chicly continental black-leather jacket, offset by the angular hand gestures of an avant-garde dancer.
Bowies darker intimations about the sexual and cultural revolution were signalled as early as 1972, in his background vocal for Mott the Hooples All the Young Dudes, which he wrote for the group when they seemed to be disbanding. The song, with its spunky androgynous misfits (He dresses like a queen but he can kick like a mule), was widely interpreted as a celebration of the glam-rock insurgency, but Bowie warned that it was no hymn to the youth but completely the opposite, a prelude to the end of the earth. That storm clouds were already gathering over the defiant new dandies can be sensed in the songs dirge-like foreboding, All the young dudes carry the news. It was oracular prescience: the apocalypse came a decade later with the plague of Aids, which decimated an entire generation of gifted young writers, artists, musicians and fashion stylists.
This article is adapted from Theatre of Gender, by Camille Paglia (from David Bowie is, V&A Publishing, edited by Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, £35 from the V&A Shop vandashop.com. It is available at the ST Bookshop price of £31.50 inc. postage & packing. Tel: 0845 271 2135. David Bowie is, will be at the V&A from March 23-August 11