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Remembering David Bowie: Long Live the Goblin King

David Meadow Feb 2

The Goblin King is dead. Long live the Goblin King.

My first substantive experience with David Bowie — that is, beyond hearing a hit song at a party — was watching him as the big-haired, Spandex-clad, humanoid Goblin villain in Labyrinth. I didn’t know much about Bowie going into that cult film, but I was clearly seeing the work of a consummate performer. Every sinister cock of the eyebrow was studied, every baring of the lower teeth was purposeful and every swooping vocal interval drew on years of practice, all to create an aura of forbidding glee. For some people, it was much deeper: my acquaintance in college gushed, “I loved his androgyny in Labyrinth, even before I knew I was
transgender!”

Bowie’s thoroughgoing genderfuckery is only the most obvious thing he did to broaden horizons. (To be sure, he turned in far more distinguished film performances than the above, in a set of three dozen). The liminal spaces he occupied in music, film and elsewhere, and the cultural bridges he built, allowed new possibilities for all audiences. He constantly visited themes of otherness — does it get any more alien than song and album titles like “Space Oddity,” “Rebel Rebel” and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars? — yet he was also utterly self-possessed in mainstream contexts.

None of this occurred in a social vacuum. I’ve read and heard countless stories of how Bowie gave people the courage to be themselves, as he defiantly wore a succession of dresses, space suits, jumpsuits, double-breasted suits, lightning jolts, lipstick/eye shadow schemes and historical costumes. Granted, there are competing narratives about what kind of underlying queerness all these getups reflected. Bowie unabashedly mentioned relationships with men and women, but when asked to assign himself a label, he often played coy (as was his right). He loved saying he and his first wife Angie met while “fucking the same bloke,” but later claimed he regretted calling himself bisexual. Still, dare we police the identity of anyone with the guts to push the envelope that much — and anyway, is ambiguity such a bad thing? Surely, Bowie was instrumental in increasing our comfort with it.

Besides blurring gender and sexual lines, Bowie was among the more outspoken white musicians in advocating against racism. Witness his 1983 MTV interview criticizing the channel for marginalizing Black artists. Few whites, even now, are this direct about the problem, and this adamant in rejecting excuses. Bowie’s “racial record,” of course, is mixed. He stained that record with bizarre statements in which he appeared to endorse fascists and Nazis (and also appeared to be drugged out of his mind), but later formed the group Tin Machine, which cut an album warning about neofascism. There’s also his cringe-inducing “China Girl” video, visually groundbreaking but full of dated stereotypes. On a subtler level, Bowie probably sensed his own participation in a grossly unfair pattern of white profit from Black creations, and sought to push back by championing current Black and Latino artists (check out the Today Show interview from ’93 touching on hip-hop) and celebrating the cross-pollination. An article on MTV.com, “11 Rap Songs You Didn’t Know Sampled David Bowie,” chronicles how household-name rappers like Dr. Dre and Jay-Z continued that cross-pollination.

Speaking of mixed records, there are the claims that recently resurfaced — that Bowie once committed statutory rape on the then-14-year-old groupie Lori Mattix and others, and forcible rape on Wanda Nichols. There’s plenty in there about his deep flaws as a human being, but there’s also the enabling media and the culture of celebrity, and it’s good that we’re having these discussions and holding our idols accountable, not a minute too soon.

Whatever his personal shortcomings, Bowie has the distinction of inspiring — and healing, vexing and amusing — multiple generations. He was a complete artist and a fairly complete world citizen, and used his faculties in unorthodox ways. So I say again, long live the Goblin King. And Ziggy Stardust. And the Thin White Duke. And the David Bowie behind them all. But this declaration doesn’t change much. They all assured their own immortality through their own stubborn, searching, brilliant effort.