Rock History, What I Leave Out: David Bowie
August 26, 2008
Among the folks I leave out, David Bowie ranks highest in student requests. Once I get a few semesters under my belt, get tired of teaching the same folks, and decide to switch things up, I’m sure I’ll swap him in, like a relief pitcher.
For now, though, I have several reasons to keep David Bowie on the alternate list. First, his musical contributions are not as significant as one might think. I can already hear complaints to this assertion, but hear me out: Bowie’s best works contain a pastiche of musical styles, simultaneously referencing different eras and genres. Aside from his Berlin work with Brian Eno, which helped to establish Eno as one of the best producers ever, much of this work is distinctly retro musically, while forward-looking in lyrics and performance.
Second, His adoption of different musical styles and personae throughout the years–Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, Berlin-Brian Eno-produced Bowie, elder statesman of alternative rock–doesn’t lend itself to easy characterization at a Rock 101 level. But, at the same time, I already cover some bands that are doing similar things at the same time, though we don’t always think of them as being in the same realm as Bowie: gender bending, genre shifting, and issues of the border between art and pop also appeared in the music and performance of Led Zeppelin; George Clinton and P-Funk adopted fully-formed crazy spacemen characters at the same time, and their characters–Funk Messiahs from outer space–come with the benefit of acting as metaphors to address race in a post-Civil Rights Movement landscape.
Third–and this is the least valid reason, but I can’t change it–the class I teach falls into the category of “Intercultural North America.” Its description focuses on rock & roll as an American form. Thus, though I can of course cover some non-North American acts, my geographical focus tends to be the United States. (Oh, poor Canada and Mexico! I neglect you, too! For there will be no Brian Adams or Corey Hart or even Alanis Morissette* in my course. Or Los Tigres del Norte.)
Conversely, I can make a lot of arguments for including him when I do. Although he’s never been as famous in the United States as he has in the UK, one could argue that no one else has been a greater influence on the visual and performative in rock music–on either side of the Atlantic–since 1970. Bowie’s gender-bending, super-weirdo-to-this-day Ziggy Stardust persona reinfused the overly “authentic” rock and roll of the late 1960s and early 1970s with a sense of showmanship.
Bowie’s contribution in terms of sexuality can’t be underestimated, either. In a time when people actually thought that Freddie Mercury was straight,** Bowie declared his bisexuality. Whether or not he really was/is whatever, this move, like Mercury’s often-overlooked declaration, blurred the edges of sexuality in rock performance. This not only called into question the assumed heterosexuality of rock music as a genre, but also placed focus on how the masculinity that so many bands presented as “authentic” and “natural” was just as artificial and just as much of a performance. On that topic, alone, we could probably spend a semester.
*Alanis Morisette will be the topic of my next “Rock History, What I Leave Out,” next Tuesday!
**Though Freddie Mercury told the NME he was gay in 1974, his audience often disregarded and remained unaware of his homosexuality. One of his more-famous, oft-repeated quotes was, “I’m as gay as a daffodil, my dear!”