Feature by Carolyn Skelton.
For many LGBTI people, and others feeling alienated from today’s society, David Bowie’s innovative performance and music struck a chord. As I said in my previous pieces, he was not the only one who provided such connections and inspiration.
Bowie’s song “Rebel, rebel” celebrates androgyny as an act of rebellion.
The increasingly fragmented music scenes since the 1970s include a complex tapestry of mainstream and alternative influences. The 2nd wave women’s movement was in full swing when Bowie first came to prominence in the UK in the 1970s.
UK Women’s Liberationists were both influenced by and reacted against the mainstream music industry. This resulted in a lot of the music of the UK movement seeming to be lost to posterity.
Bowie’s name was mentioned several times in the 1970s and 80s Women’s Liberation magazine, Spare Rib [searchable archives of the magazine here]. They are mostly positive, especially with respect to his androgynous style. Articles tend to value the way Bowie challenged the aggressive masculine posturing that had become quite dominant in mainstream rock music.
A 1973 article reports on a concert at Earls Court with a photo of Bowie dressed only in his undies, and says:
“Who can explain the phenomenon of this frail androgyne… It is known that he’s not at all well, but sadly it seems he’s made his choice and opted for a meteoric existance. ”
The monthly magazine also focuses on women’s music and the fact that female androgyny and drag kings, didn’t get as much attention as male performances of androgyny, as mentioned in this 1983 article.
In recent decades, NZ’s Topp Twins have also done a fair amount of political, songs as well as some gender bending and androgyny.
A 1979 Spare Rib article by Lucy Toothpaste, is critical of the way rock music is dominated by the macho posturing and misogynist lyrics of “cock rock”, while women artistes are promoted or tolerated so long as they are not too threatening to the gender status quo. Consequently, according to Toothpaste, many feminist musicians prefer jazz, folk, funk or other less macho forms, and reject the commercial music scene. However, Toothpaste also argues that rock has “an energy and enthusiasm” that is “potentially subversive”.
See for instance X-Ray Spex’s late 1970s, Oh Bondage Up Yours:
The Spare Rib archives provide valuable evidence of the alternative women’s music scene that existed in the 1970s and early 1980s in London. Women’s liberation musicians tended reject individualism and the promotion of stars, as well as having a collaborative approach. This can be seen in the linked 1983 article about the Holloway Allstars, a group of men and women which included musicians from some all women bands like Sisterhood of Spit. Members of these bands include Lydia D’Usteybyn and Laka D’Asical – pseudonyms, probably thumbing their noses equally at pretentious style and patriarchal naming practices, and that would not be out of place in some 21st century online forums.
A video of the Holloway Allstars:
Guest stars was a women’s band that included some of the same women mentioned in the above linked article. They are seen here promoting a reunion performance in 2013:
This Spare Rib page of 1983, refers to a Guest Stars Gig and a benefit for Greenham Common.
In the 70s and 80s, it is likely that the unwillingness to embrace both gendered and corporate dominated music trends rendered them unappealing to many outside the women’s movement.
If not for the following website, most of this music would now be lost: Women’s Liberation Music Archive: feminist music making in the UK and Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s. The page at this link provides details about Sisterhood of Spit, which included some of the Guest Stars’ line-up and a link to the audio file of one of their songs.
The archives show much of the socialist themes running through the 70s and 80s UK music scene, from songs and/or gigs in support of the miners’ strike, and the protests against the US nuclear base at Greenham Common, to Carol Grimes, Mau Mau song that critiques European imperialism. Grimes performed with mixed male and female bands, plus some of the continually morphing women only bands. The soundcloud has audio of Bad Habits’ Greenham song, which has a Reggie beat:
Increasingly in the 80s, Thatcherism deliberately undermined the strong grassroots, left wing and alternative networks in UK cities. At the same time, in the mainstream entertainment industry, and girl-power style appropriated elements of feminism. Queer style and a sexualised form of female empowerment became highly sale-able, as seen with Madonna. Here Madonna pays homage to Bowie and his influence on her by performing “Rebel, Rebel”:
In the article by Lucy Toothpaste linked above, she identifies the appropriating processes of the mainstream music industry as seen in the 1970s. Since then, the corporate dominated media became ever more sophisticated in appropriating rebellion. They sell it back to the people as fashion, and as accessories to individualised identities.
So, where to now for music and cultural productions generally that challenge the status quo, socially and politically?