As with almost everything about David Bowie, no one is sure exactly what his politics were. The Mirror claims he turned down an OBE and a knighthood in the 2000s. In 1977 he is quoted as saying ‘the more I travel and the less sure I am about exactly which political philosophies are commendable’. Nevertheless, many have seen ways in which Bowie’s career could provide lessons for how we do politics.
David Bowie rarely indulged directly in politics or political slogans. His lyrics seemed to deal obliquely with it across his career-from ‘Now the workers have struck for fame’ in ‘Life on Mars’, his 1996 song ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ to the album Diamond Dogs, based on George Orwell’s 1984. However, direct ‘interventions’ seemed rare and a little unclear, as with his plea for the union and Scotland to vote No to independence in 2014, sent via Kate Moss, or this rather entertaining acceptance of a Brit award in 1996 from a young Tony Blair. This didn’t, of course, stop his fans who seem, on the whole, left-wing (and also fans of scrabble, Patrick Moore and Monty Python, according to YouGov).
But Bowie was not apolitical. In the 1970s Bowie challenged entrenched gender and sexuality stereotypes at a time when few would. Jarvis Cocker has said how Bowie sent out the message that it was OK to be different while the Mirror speakers of how the singer’s ‘radical, gender-busting personas turned traditional conservative views upside down and widened what was acceptable in society’. He also wrote about the world around him, describing events from the space race to divided Berlin (the German Foreign Ministry today publically thanked him for helping to bring down the Berlin Wall).
At the same time, his championing of different cultures pushed all sorts of new ideas into society-look over his top 100 books, covering everything from a memoir of Stalin’s Gulags to Viz magazine. He popularised of whole kaleidoscope of new sounds and visions to new audiences, from German electronic music to Soul, while also experimenting with what people insist on calling ‘world music’. And his message reached a huge, diverse number of people.
In this way, David Bowie was a very political animal, in the same way that Elvis Presley or the Beatles were. None of them urged ‘revolution’ or told people how to vote. Elvis was rather conservative, John Lennon asked to be counted ‘out’ of the revolution (or maybe ‘in’-he wasn’t sure) and David Bowie was too wide-ranging or elliptical to join any one party. But like these other musical legends, in challenging convention, the Man Who fell to Earth tore down barriers and opened up new worlds. David Bowie made people think differently about the world around them. And that is very political.
Image courtesy of Alex Wormersley.