David Bowie’s Bisensuality

Mark Simpson on how Bowie, the 1970s progenitor metrosexuality, shape-shifted masculinity 

(Originally appeared in High50 magazine, March 2013)

The video for David Bowie’s first single in a decade, the melancholic, low-key ‘Where Are We Now?’ – featuring the faces of Bowie and an unnamed woman superimposed on conjoined puppets – is striking for all sorts of reasons.

For those who can remember such things, it is also a striking reminder of his 1979 Saturday Night Live US performance of ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, with Joey Arias and the late great Klaus Nomi on backing vocals, in which Bowie’s head was superimposed on a dancing puppet (this really happened).

‘Boys Keep Swinging’, released at the height of his own pomp, is a swaggeringly ironic mockery of machismo and male privilege: “Heaven loves ya/the clouds part for ya/Nothing stands in your way/When you’re a boy”. Slyly, he outed the homoerotics of masculine pride with the line “When you’re a boy/Other boys check you out”.

NBC stood in Bowie’s way: they censored the line. His lips moved but no sound came out. And much the same could be said for much of his pre-Let’s Dance career in the US. Bowie was way too gay for the God-fearing USA.

In the David Mallet promo video for the song (which RCA refused to release in the US) Bowie is backed by three bored women singers who turn out to be the singer in drag: Bowie as Katherine Hepburn; Bowie as Marlene Dietrich; Bowie as a brunette, gum-chewing Olivia Newton-John.

Like the videos for his new singles, ‘Where Are We Now?’ and ‘The Stars Are Out Tonight’, Bowie was telling us he’s both masculine and feminine. And neither.

Of all male pop stars – of all pop stars – Bowie has been the most in control and controlling of his image. He was like a studio system Hollywood starlet – but he ran the studio. No star of vinyl or celluloid understood and exploited the power of fashion and aesthetics and sexual personae in selling himself better. Bowie set out to make the world fall for for the man who fell to Earth, and succeeded, over and over again.

Count the ways we loved David Robert Jones: Major Tom. Ziggy. Diamond Dogs. Aladdin Sane. The Thin White Duke. Scary Monster. Let’s Dance. (Later this month at the V&A David Bowie Exhibition you can pay homage to all Bowie’s historic costume changes).

Although he probably hates the term, Bowie, despite his wonky teeth and mis-matching eye colour, is the late 20th-century progenitor of metrosexuality – the 21st-century male desire to be desired, the masculine appropriation of ‘feminine’ beauty and style.

Wearing a ‘man dress’ on the cover of The Man Who Sold the World he anticipated by 40 years Andrej Pejic, the male model who models women’s clothes as well as men’s. Appropriately enough, Pejic appears in the video for Bowie’s latest release, ‘The Stars Are Out Tonight’, along with his female doppelganger, Tilda Swinton.

That epoch-making performance on Top of the Pops of 1972’s ‘Starman’ – a song loosely based on Judy Garland’s ‘Over The Rainbow’ – in which Bowie, in a multi-coloured quilted two-piece suit, orange hair and white nail varnish, languorously draped his arm around his golden guitarist Mick Ronson, was a very calculated and inspiring gesture of defiance against masculine norms.

Only a few months previously, Bowie had told the world he was gay. (Angie, his wife at the time, famously quipped to him: “You could at least have said bisexual!”) The first UK gay pride march had been held just a few days earlier. Wind back another five years, and all sexual contact between males was illegal. As a million dads shouted at the TV “Get that bleedin’ poofter off my telly!”, a generation of kids decided Bowie was their star man.

Whatever the ‘truth’ of Bowie’s own sexuality, his TOTP intrusion into the living rooms of suburban England was the most powerful and provocative sexual liberation parade ever seen in the UK. He was later to beat a retreat from his androgyny and bisexuality in the Reaganite Eighties, perhaps in the hope that America would no longer censor him.

But the glamorous seeds he sowed back in the Seventies have borne strange and wonderful bisensual fruit, enjoyed by everyone, regardless of gender or orientation.

It was largely left to another working class DB from London who doesn’t sing and can barely speak to spread the high-street, off-the-peg version of his gospel: David Beckham, the footballer famously “in touch with my feminine side”. In a sense, Beckham has realised the massive, global fame that should have been Bowie’s, but which the world wasn’t quite ready for back then.

But thanks to Bowie’s swishy, bravura trail-blazing, even tongue-tied footballers today can be everything that they can be. While other boys, and girls, check them out.