Teenage Wildlife

The Gender Bender

One view of Scary Monsters…the new product

by Jon Savage

The Face, November 1980
Transcribed and scanned by Ben

Cover

 

AND SO it was. Most pop stars are transient moths to the flame; David Bowie has lasted. To the public he’s beyond Pop Star–he’s Star Artist. On a plateau untouchable and mysterious.

His influence has been huge, and not always healthy. You can see it on any High Street, in any disco, in any gay club, on any record sleeve, in every kid who "works at Woolies and wants to be a star". Worst, you can see it in the current crop of ‘art’ bands. Mary Harron remarked disparagingly about the recent Futurama Festival that Siouxsie & The Banshees "taught a whole generation to pose without humor". But who taught them?

"They shared lovers of both sexes, freely and openly…they shaved their eyebrows and dyed their hair outlandish colors…" So ran the intro to Angela Bowie’s kiss ‘n’ tell memoirs from Two Goose Ranch. This is exactly what most people want to know–you can always rely on the Sun to give the public what it wants–about David Bowie, Star: a bit of futurism, a bit of make-up, but best, lots of Gender Confusion.

This, just as much as much as the ‘art’ is the key component to the Bowie monolith: Ziggy, you see, hit home. The great public only ever likes to keep one thing in its head about people: just as Bowie’s massive contribution to fashion was in the fact that you can still see the glam uniforms of baggies, tank-top, and platforms on provincial streets, so the spice in his image was gayness. Ultimately, if Bowie has invented a whole language of ‘art’ posing, he’s invented more specifically the language to express gender confusion. It still hasn’t been superseded.

Only last summer a group was to be seen on the stage of a more liberal Manchester club; called Spurtz, they featured two girls who knew what they were doing and one chap who didn’t really. They weren’t much–noise and atonal–but what struck me was the lead singer, banging around in a lurex mini-dress, was drawing entirely from a vocabulary invented by Bowie. And people stood and took it.

These days Bowie is beyond such open campery, as he’s beyond open doom-pending and glam: that’s just to say that he’s more subtle about it. Angie panders to the great public’s view, whereas "Ashes To Ashes"–his first Number One for ages–pandered perfectly to the pop public’s view of Bowie: now taking his place as a "mature" artist.

David Mallett’s brilliant video packed in the usual elements–space, madness, and lots of blurred gender–in three minutes that seemed pregnant with meaning; once examined, of course, it was at least expressionist and haunting, at worst hooey, but that’s irrelevant. It dazzled, it sold. For that one time you saw it on TOTP, it was everything.

HippieUltimately Bowie is still worth watching, if not for the actual performances, many of which have been perfunctory over the last three years, but because of the dreams that reside in him; not as a stylist now, but as a totem. If all his costumes were sold, like Judy Garland’s in the MGM lot, what kink would wear them?

"What the hell is wrong with me? I’m not what I want to be!"

Bowie’s real success (after all, any tart can bang around the stage in a skirt) is in tapping that perennial teen equation–which, so protected have we been, has carried over into the twenties. Teenage isn’t a very nice age–most people who tell you so are lying–and it’s one of the immutable facts that the pop biz is staffed by 20 and 30 year olds reliving the teenhood they never had in recreating it for consumption by teens.

David Bowie came out properly in a blaze of obvious self re-creation–from Terry Nelhams through Andy Warhol–and it touched every suburban heart. You don’t need to be you: you can change your clothes and your name and your hair and be an entirely new person!

Where Bowie upped and out was in changing this on every album. That is the promise, the premise of pop and teenfashion: overnight, you can be transformed into something superhuman. Not very pretty, but, to date necessary. Bowie is the agent of that transformation made manifest and perennial: "Every man and woman is a star".

DAVID Bowie started as Davy Jones, a dedicated follower of fashion: from sharp mod to fuzzy hippie. "Space Oddity" caught the end of hippie idealism perfectly. It was too fragile, but it crystallized one aspect of the myth–futurism. The breakthrough came later. Along with Marc Feld–another mod re-creation–Bowie reacted sharply against the supposed "authenticity" of hippie.

The sleeves of "The Man Who Sold The World" and Hunky Dory" set the correct note of ambiguity (at the time, so shocking that the sleeve on the Former was changed so as not to sully clean-cut American youth) and "Ziggy", a truly plastic piece of posing worthy of Paul Gadd, cracked it. All Bowie did was release a catchy "Over The Rainbow" steal in "Starman", say "Hi! I’m bi!" in the MM and presto!–Glam!

This really was news. Homosexuality, if not bisexuality, had always been part of pop, both in the process (managers picking up potential singers) and the appeal. Film stars like Montgomery Cliff had killed themselves in a previous age trying to deny it, but this was the first time, five years after legislation, that any star came right out and said it.

People might have nudges each other about Cliff, would have made jokes about The Beatles if Lennon hadn’t been such an obvious thug, might have suspected Ray Davies, but the only heavy ones were the Stones and the Velvet Underground. Even in their case, it was only the icing on the cake of courage: for the Stones (in particular Jagger and Jones) it was part of their package of anarchic assault, while the Velvets just used it as sleaze–homo mixed with heroin, drag with S&M.

BartenderBowie acknowledged the debt by recording "White Light" and "Queen Bitch"–the one that got everybody going with glitter eyeliner–finally paying tribute on "Let’s Spend The Night Together", a version that made full use of any possible ambiguities. John, I’m only dancing.

What he did, then was to open Pandora’s Box: by making homosex attractive (rather than a snigger) he liberated and brought into the mainstream a whole range of fantasies which had hitherto been repressed. Naturally they came out with great force.

Make-up definitely beat dope as the thing to shock your parents with. It must have taken a degree of courage–although Bowie had the distancing effect of the Ziggy superstructure–but in a way it was inevitable. Some of the results were OK, others awful. At best it was a healthy reaction against gender stereotypes, Puritanism, and gave people a chance to move out of whatever closet, but at worst it was Jobriath.

Naturally the puritan hangover still bit; homosexuality had to be perceived as part of some greater decadence. Bowie’s gentle pessimistic futurism had gradually been replaced by a harsher, apocalyptic view. Distorted as all pop messages are, it read: if it’s all ending, any thing goes. As such, it was rationalized and easier to cope with: homosex became so pop that it even entered the puritan world of Richard Allen’s Skinhead series, in his peerless Glam–whose cover is an exactly inept copy of "Aladdin Sane". In the book, his descriptions of faggy glam rockers conform absolutely to public stereotypes.

IF HE wanted to avoid becoming a sharper, futurist John Inman, Bowie had to move fast. He was already outgrowing Glam and its restriction, while the public was celebrating Slade and Sweet–brickies dressed up as rent-boys. It’d been good to him: the homosex angle had provided the scandal on which any sound teen career is based (and had opened floodgates for such as Elton John) and glam had handed him a generation on a plate. Increasingly he pushed at the limits, offering himself as Artist, a generalist adopting different roles over a series of brilliant, yet reactive and reflexive albums.

Each had a high profile, visual identity that went with the product: these identities Bowie would live out for the duration of the product’s life, to such an extent that the albums seemed to have more life than he did–possession in reverse. However dangerous, it was a shield, and gave the advantage of being an Artist rather than an Entertainer: a more permissibly aloof stance, a greater deal of privacy a greater ability to chop and change. Ultimately, it was that distance involved with Ziggy–avoiding the effect of being a pop star by adopting it as a role–amplified.

All this time he was being watched. And copied. Having taught a whole generation to pose, they weren’t about to give up: they just got arty as well.

To fit the artist image he began to steal from, and model himself on, specifically literary sources: particularly from William Burroughs and Christopher Isherwood. Both are more or less specifically homosex authors, both deal with smut and totalitarian control as part of a slightly more complicated world view that Bowie seemed to transmit. Pop will never leave anything alone, and automatically trashes literary models; either way, Bowie’s dilettante fancy flashed on the most obvious elements of both.

From Burroughs he took cut-ups (now translated a "random" or planned accidents") and control paranoia, 1984 style. From Isherwood the physical spirit of society in decay, pushing the Weimar parallels–the dyed blond, ambiguous dandy, the Thin White Duke. All this was at best stylish and illustrative, particularly when coupled with some good torch songs like "Win" and "Golden Years", at worst silly and dangerous, not only generally–in reinforcing the role of the Artist as divine, separate from society and responsible only to himself–but personally. Role assumption became loss of identity: crack baby crack.

BY THIS time Bowie was reaping the seeds of what he’s sown. Punk professed to take "Diamond Dogs" seriously. In a fit of cultural Stalinism, it ignored homosex and concentrated on decay and 1984: true to its roots as an Art Movement (rather than a True Expression of Working Class Revolt) it was fascinated by Bowie as Artist, as Art object, in an orgy of self-re-creation. Remember those wacky pseudonyms?

Scary MonsterThe man himself had meantime Come Down to Earth and sidestepped into withdrawal, away from any sharply defined image: always at his best when writing for kids ("Kooks"), Bowie introduced a note of autism into the next two albums, "Low" and "Heroes", as well as several electronic pieces that had the power to disturb dreams. True to form this mode was discontinues.

As Bowie marked time for two unproductive years, his electronic pieces were copied endlessly and became Moderne. He spent the rest of his time appearing in a silly "decadent" movie and endorsing various people on the sillier end of arty pop: with the exception of Talking Heads, he was to give his direct or indirect approval to Eno, the Human League, Devo, and Siouxsie & The Banshees. His approval meant they were all taken very seriously.

Most revealingly, he made heavy use of Steve Strange in the "Ashes To Ashes" video–the most recent, the most absurd, yet the most magnificent, exponent of the Suburban Pose which never dies.

AT THE time of writing, what was once irritating and daft is fast becoming a bleat of defiance: "Scary Monsters" arrives in a climate which is hard on both Bowie and his chosen children.

In the face of increasing hardship and political polarization, arty posing and homosex–inextricably linked too often thanks to Bowie’s example–are definitely seen to be out: the former as childish luxury, the latter as a definite social disadvantage as dog eats dog.

The new album attempts to come to terms with this: angry, disturbed singing over harsh, distorted noises laid on a familiar Bowie beat. A careful mix of the familiar and the novel, some of it is impressive, all of it beautifully crafted, while two tracks–"Scary Monsters" and "Scream Like A Baby"–are equal to anything he’s done.

MercedesBowie would like to sound worried and he no doubt is: at least three of the tracks contain a futurism that is only a small projection from present trends, call it Alternative Present if you will.

"Fashion", always an acrostic of fascism and passion, accurately catches the soldier talk coming from the middle classes, while "Scream Like A Baby" makes it quiet clear that if you’re gay or socially at all divergent then they’ll come for you. He even appears to give the lie to his own position on "Teenage Wildlife": "I feel like a group of one". AAAaaah.

And yet the record arrives in a typically frittery sleeve. In the same week the press is full of glowing reports of "The Elephant Man" as Bowie keeps his options out of pop, out of Europe. You can’t teach an old dilettante new tricks.

Each new album raises the question of his relevance: this one even more so, as Bowie backs up against the wall of his futurism. What was once projection is now fact. But each time, his relevance is reaffirmed: not necessarily because of musical or pop merit, or even brand loyalty, but because it touches on the concerns that are expected.

No one has surpassed Bowie as gender bender, not even the Village People, although macho styles have taken over in the gay discos, parodying the world outside. Tom Robinson’s committed model didn’t last either. Nor has anyone surpassed him as Artist model, not even Eno. Even though he’s due for supersession on both counts, the mystique is still deadly strong. Why? Because David Bowie has entered British life as the model for every kid who says "I wish I was…" He’s the creation of that need, as long as it remains, so will he. Will it be forever?

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This document last updated Friday, 26-Mar-1999 02:19:50 EST
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