Bowie reflections part 2: rocking revolutions?

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Feature by Carolyn Skelton.

In retrospect, as I stated in part 1, Bowie both was part of, and was critical of the highly visual, performance-focused video and digital culture, that came with the intensification of consumerism in the 1980s and 1990s.

In the late 1950s and 1960s, masculine-dominated rock music promised rebellion, and possibly revolution for ordinary working people. This gave way to the folk influenced, anti-materialistic, no-frills-style counter-cultural music, often highly critical of the social and political status quo. David Bowie provided a further counter-point to this with his androgynous performances, in tune with the rise of the gay and women’s liberation movements.

But since the 1960s, in spite of all this rebellious pop culture and rock music, income and wealth inequalities have grown and there seems to be a backlash against social and political gains for women (see an Amnesty International NZ report on Evening Report  )

Meanwhile the future looks daunting for large numbers of young people; ideals of collaborative, egalitarian approaches to music seem highly marginalised by the corporate music industry; and popular culture now seems to have a questionable, possibly ineffectual role in any social revolution.

A look back at the direction of David Bowie’s career highlights some of the inter-related political, cultural, social, media and technological changes from the 1960s to the present day. The early 1970s, when Bowie was performing the bisexual rockstar Ziggy Stardust (1973), was the time when gay liberation was gaining some traction, albeit from the margins of society. The Kinks released their song Lola about a romance between young guy and a “transgender woman” in 1970; Joan Baez outed herself as bisexual in 1972;and Bowie did so in 1976, only to retract that in 1983 and claim he had always been a closet heterosexual.

It was seen as a major breakthrough to the mainstream when the Tom Robinson Band performed “Glad to be Gay” (released on vinyl 1978) on TV. This video of a Tom Robinson Band TV performance in 1977 includes “Glad to Be Gay”.

In the early 80s, around the time when Bowie was successfully going mainstream, Boy George was out and very popular, while an increasing number of mainstream music artists were known to be gay or bisexual: Holly Johnson of Frankie Goes to Hollywood,  and Marc Almond were known to be gay; Morrissey was ambiguously “asexual” (later he calls himself “humansexual”); and rumours abounded about George Michael’s (then) closeted homosexuality.

In the late 70s and early 80s in London, many of us aligned with the Women’s Liberation Movement were very critical of the masculine dominance of the music industry. While we tended to like Bowie’s androgynous style, some of us were also concerned that the music industry, including queer pop/rock, tended to be dominated by men.

A vibrant alternative women’s music scene was embedded in the London (and UK) Women’s Liberation Movement, which was in turn, embedded in wider leftwing and alternative networks. This provided entertainment for activists, as well as being performed at or after political events. More importantly this music contributed to the social bonding, nurturing and maintenance of activist communities.

Nevertheless, this music was also influenced by developments in the mainstream music industry. Many UK feminists and queer women were into the music of K D Lang, Dusty Springfield, Joan Armatrading, and the Eurythmics. Songs like “Gloria Gaynor’s “I will survive” and Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” were popular at women’s discos, inspiring a lot of exuberant dancing. With the on-going changes in pop and rock music trends, some Bowie, punk and the new romantics’ songs, were enjoyed by many in the Women’s Liberation Movement, but at times seemed to be part of a parallel universe.

Annie Lennox’s androgyny in “Love is a Stranger” had particular resonance with some women I knew.

In this Lennox looks to be strongly influenced by Bowie style androgyny of the 1970s – a woman performing a male performing in a feminised style. This seems to have been fairly prevalent at the time. However, it looks like it was Tina Turner and an Ikete that taught Jagger some of his strut and vamp moves.

Feminist music of the 70s and 80s in the UK was influenced by the masculine and corporate dominated music industry, even while trying to provide a more critical, resistant, collaborative, inclusive and socialist form of creativity.

Part 3 will further consider the role of music in political activism and social critique: lessons for today from recent history?

Featured image from http://www.iwanttobeanalt.com/

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Carolyn is committed to economic and social justice. She has researched and taught in film, TV and media studies, sociology and gender studies. Carolyn is actively interested in local history, and its impact on the present and future.

Carolyn currently works part time as a research librarian in Auckland Libraries, which is part of Auckland Council. The views, analysis, and opinions she expresses on this site are her own, and not those of Auckland Council.

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