Back from Suffragette City

You’ve got your mother in a whirl/Cause she’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl -Rebel Rebel, David Bowie

And for my last trick…

I’ve written about pop and dancing and falling in love and even a few political posts. So where to go from here? Bowie, of course.

David Bowie made me a feminist, you see. Well, not entirely. Lots of other things did, too. And certainly Bowie had little to do with that ever-present subject of argument, “when I decided to call myself a feminist.”

No, Bowie was just there when I needed him, whispering in my ear about the secret powers of glitter makeup and transgressive clothing. He wasn’t political and by not being so he was more political than anything else I was listening to. While Jello Biafra and the Clash made explicit arguments, Bowie was just there, convincing millions of straight boys to buy his records while he gleefully paraded in high heels and dresses and skintight leotards.

Never drag, really. Just the accoutrements that we associated with femininity but that he wielded as tools for transformation, again and again and again. Makeup to draw symbols on your face, exaggerate one feature beyond any reality.

In an unpublished piece on my hard drive looking for a home, I wrote:

I loved the polymorphous sexuality of David Bowie, those songs of beauties male and female, strong and alien and more than a little scary, and I learned how much power there was in confusing people’s ideas of what you should be.

Bowie was monstrous in his day, not least because he simply cast off one identity and pulled on the next—he wore dresses, makeup, then alien skintight rockstar wear, then found soul and suits and a pompadour, then ghostly pallor—he was married to an American, then gay, then alone, then married to a Somali woman.

Bowie was skidding and sliding from one cultural reference to the next, assembling an identity from the bits of what had just started to be pop culture. He taught me to assemble my own, to shed skins when I needed to and move on to the next. He taught me that we’re all beautiful.

He taught me that we’re all monsters.

I see as much Bowie in Lady Gaga as I do Madonna; Gaga and her obsession with the term “monsters.” The use of fame to redefine oneself is a freedom still largely kept for the privileged, but making a choice to align yourself with the monsters is still a step. But I digress, this isn’t about Gaga.

Except that it is, I suppose, in the way that it’s about taking whichever bits of whichever pop idol we’re presented with and learning what you can, using what you can. Bowie’s no saint and he’s still a rich straight white guy. But as I wrote last week,

David Bowie put “Heroes” in quotes on the title of his album and his song for a reason. He was a pop star on his third or fourth or fifth persona (depending on when you start counting) by the time he made that record and he knew better than anyone that your public face is one you create and put on. (Oh, there will be more on Bowie.) For me, part of being a hippie lefty feminist type is not looking to people to be heroes.

Not heroes, then. But always looking for stories. Because telling stories is how we connect with others, how we learn, how we make change. And sometimes you find the story you were looking for in a pop song and other times you remember your stories when you listen to those songs. Sometimes the stories are sad and sometimes they’re scary and sometimes, sometimes they’re beautiful beyond all recognition. Sometimes they’re all of the above.

Like this one:

[Photo montage of David Bowie and Marc Bolan set to Bowie’s Lady Stardust; Bowie in typical skinny-glam gear and Bolan with his black curls around his face and lots of eyeliner, obviously]

People stared at the makeup on his face
Laughed at his long black hair, his animal grace
The boy in the bright blue jeans
Jumped up on the stage
And lady stardust sang his songs
Of darkness and disgrace

And he was alright, the band was all together
Yes he was alright, the song went on forever
Yes he was awful nice
Really quite out of sight
And he sang all night long

Femme fatales emerged from shadows
To watch this creature fair
Boys stood upon their chairs
To make their point of view
I smiled sadly for a love I could not obey
Lady stardust sang his songs
Of darkness and dismay

And he was alright, the band was all together
Yes he was alright, the song went on forever
And he was awful nice
Really quite out of sight
And he sang all night long

Oh how I sighed when they asked if I knew his name

Ooh they was alright, the band was all together
Yes he was alright, and the song went on forever
He was awful nice
Really quite paradise
He sang all night long

It’s about loneliness and love and loss and playing with gender and that fear that comes from attraction. And so I played with them too and grew less afraid, even though the boy who introduced me to Bowie was a poor substitute and supremely uncomfortable with his own desires. Moved on from there and each successive piece made me stronger.

And so I turn to Bowie whenever my life is changing, because he knew all about changes and knows them still. I turn to Bowie when I need to remember that the categories people want to stick you in never fit right and it’s OK to break them down and break out and break away. I turn to Bowie when I need to remember that it’s all just a performance and it’s OK to have a you that is still there when you step off the stage, and I still turn to Bowie when I think about love.

And what does any of that have to do with feminism? Sometimes it feels like just another category that people want to define rules for. Sometimes I need to remember which side I’m on. There are rarely only two.


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11 Responses to Back from Suffragette City

  1. PJ says:

    “And so I turn to Bowie whenever my life is changing, because he knew all about changes and knows them still. I turn to Bowie when I need to remember that the categories people want to stick you in never fit right and it’s OK to break them down and break out and break away.”

    Sarah, I’m probably almost twice your age and I still completely understand this. And I still need my own Bowies (and I have a few of them, including Bowie himself.) The point is to never stop changing.

    Thanks for the video and the lyrics too. Made my day.

  2. Alison says:

    I adore Bowie to no end, and I remember as a young girl I found him fascinating because of the unusual and transgressive nature of his appearance – I thought he was beautiful and interesting, and as I got older I thought he was awesome for just doing whatever without worrying about offering explanations or fitting into one certain box.

    One quibble, though:

    Bowie’s no saint and he’s still a rich straight white guy.

    He’s bisexual, as publicly stated way back when and confirmed not long ago in this interview.

  3. Kathy says:

    “Bowie was monstrous in his day, not least because he simply cast off one identity and pulled on the next—he wore dresses, makeup, then alien skintight rockstar wear, then found soul and suits and a pompadour, then ghostly pallor—he was married to an American, then gay, then alone, then married to a Somali woman.”

    This sums it up perfectly. I came to Bowie a good decade late, after Boy George (whom I also loved) challenged gender/sexuality norms. This was pretty heady stuff for a nine-year-old, Midwestern kid.

  4. Colin says:

    I’m so glad you commented on the use of quotation marks on “Heroes.” I fly into a frustrated rage when I hear people saying that it’s some great statement of love, “because he’s saying we can be heroes!” I’m just stunned that, in the age of non-stop irony-quotation-marks for EVERYTHING, they somehow overlook the quotation marks on that song/album and what they mean (i.e., that the relationship has hit such a terrible place that staying together for one more day would be “heroic,” which of course isn’t heroic at all).

    Sorry – needed to get that off my chest, and I’m glad (though not surprised) you noted the importance of those simple grammatical marks.

  5. I grew up in a family and in an area where David Bowie was equated with “subversive degenerate queer”. And not the acceptable reclaimed version of “queer”, either. So when I began to listen to him in my teens, I was frankly afraid of some perceived evil filth that might be pouring out of my speakers.

    Oddly enough, his music was accessible and while certainly gender-bending, spoke to me as well. As a musician, his rhythm guitar style proved accessible and influential, but his lyrics were the most powerful. I think I’ll always find the Hunky Dory/Ziggy Stardust period to be my favorite. In my macabre, self-pitying teens, “Rock ‘n Roll Suicide” and its first two lyrics spoke to me, but also offered hope.

  6. Fat Steve says:

    I first heard Rebel Rebel on 99X in New York City when I was 10 years old and I thought ‘this is rock and roll’- this is how rock and roll should sound like- normal fare for this radio station was stuff like REO Speedwagon (or EVERY morning when my Dad drove us to school- Dust in The Wind by Kansas. This should give you an idea of the era as well…turn of the 70’s to the 80’s) However in those heady days of ‘Less Talk More Rawwwwwwwk’, the DJ’s infrequent interruption caused me to not catch the name of the singer, so for a good year or so I just knew I loved this song ‘Rebel Rebel.’

    That was not to say I was completely ignorant of Dame David, due to my liberal upbringing I had unfettered access to my father’s reading material, which included his Playboy collection (to be fair- in those days- you really could read it for the articles. Either that or my Mom was just pretending to be interested in the Pentagon Papers, and really was looking at boobs and bush- I don’t like to judge.) Aaaaaanyway, I was frequently distracted from my main object of interest (the aforementioned boobs and bush,) by their music articles, and they seemed to love having pictures of Bowie in his androgynous phase, in his thin white duke phase, and in his Scary Monsters phase (which was the present day guise at the time.) I always found his look to be unbelievably attractive (not in the sense of being attracted to him, just being attracted to the look…wanting to look like that.) Now that I think about it, in the early 80’s, in my junior high in Queens, my ‘Aladdin Sane’ haircut looked not that different from my friend Ricky Footer’s mullet but I saw it as a world apart.

    So one day I was reading an interview with Bowie in Playboy and in between being freaked out by his ‘druggie’ lifestyle (I was young and innocent…) I discovered that he in fact had a song called ‘Rebel Rebel.’ Oh my god, could this guy who looks like a slip of a girl, takes coke and sleeps with men sing this ballsy rock song? Yes it could. I immediately found out everything I could about Bowie- trips into Manhattan all revolved around visits to record stores and rock memorabilia places. (I still have my Bowie Picture Discs.) However, shortly after I developed what I can only describe as a full blown obsession…TRAGEDY STRUCK…

    TRAGEDY, I tell you.

    That’s right, Bowie released an album called ‘Let’s Dance.’ Now you kids might argue that there are a few decent tunes on there, (Modern Love springs to mind,) but it was just the start of a steady decline and just the nadir of Bowie’s street cred. Saying you were a fan of David Bowie in 1983 was like saying you were a fan of Michael Jackson or Lionel Richie. Still I wore my T-shirt from the Serious Moonlight tour (he played Rebel Rebel both nights I went,) accusing people of grave ignorance when they sneered at Bowie the pop star (‘whaddya mean you never heard Bewlay Brothers? What about Panic in Detroit?’)

    Anyway, Let’s Dance actually seems quite listenable compared to the raft of rubbish he released in the following years, (I gave up trying to listen after the first Tin Machine album,) but I always will feel like I was cheated out of true Bowie fandom because, like Miniver Cheevy, I was born too late.

  7. M says:

    Apropo taking “Heroes”, sans quotation marks, at face value.

    The National Review considers it the 21st greatest conservative rock song ever: http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=NzZkNDU5MmViNzVjNzkzMDE3NzNlN2MyZjRjYTk4YjE=.

    • Cara says:

      Bwahaha, M, a great portion of that list is a lesson in missing the point. Thank you for sharing, I got a good laugh. :)

  8. Katy says:

    Love David Bowie! He also wrote a song addressing domestic violence – “Repetition” from his Lodger album.

  9. Lauren says:

    Love Bowie. Love Mark Bolan, too.

    Great post.

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