David Bowie: How the glam rocker pushed the boundaries of gender expression

Written by Andrea Domanick, produced by Rosalie Atkinson

When David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” album came out in 1970, the cover image stirred up controversy around Bowie's gender and sexuality, which lasted his entire career. Credit: YouTube

David Bowie redefined what it meant to be a rockstar, particularly with his 1970 album “The Man Who Sold the World.” That album’s cover featured Bowie in a floor length dress, long curly hair, and knee-high leather boots. He’s splayed across a daybed, draped in shimmering fabrics. When the album came out, the cover image stirred up controversy around Bowie's gender and sexuality, which lasted his entire career.

Now music fans are getting more music from this time period in Bowie’s career. A new record featuring unreleased music from the era of “The Man Who Sold the World” comes out this month. It also features lots of new photos of Bowie.

Tiffany Naiman, who teaches a college course called "It's the Freakiest Show: David Bowie's Intertextual Imagination,” speaks with KCRW about how Bowie’s identity 50 years ago is relevant today. 

KCRW: What happened when people first saw the cover of “The Man Who Sold the World?” 

Tiffany Naiman: “It's really interesting because it was originally a cartoon drawing cover. And Bowie decided he didn't like that. It was done by a friend of his, and he decided to have Keith McMillan do a photoshoot. And the reaction to it, mainly by the record label, which was Mercury at the time, they didn't like it at all. They felt like it did the opposite of what the sound of the music was. 

The music on ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ is very masculine, very pre-heavy metal with these incredible guitar riffs by Mick Ronson. And yet, you have Bowie splayed out like a pre-Raphaelite from, you know, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s era of paintings and things like that. And the cover became a rarity, because then that was switched out for the black and white cover that we know so well. That happened in 1972. That became the main cover that RCA reissued.”

Why were people so upset by it? Because it was a guy in a dress? 

“That was the problem. It was the ‘70s, and he was a guy in a dress. It’s before we get the New York Dolls and glam and all of that. And Bowie was such a big part of that as 1972 rolls around. But yeah, it was mainly that there's a guy looking like a girl in a dress on a couch. And that was not normal at all for the world of rock and roll. I guess it's still not normal for the world of rock and roll, in some ways. 

We have so many subgenres and subcultures now, and and we have pop artists that are playing with gender and gender fluidity a great deal, and it's being talked about more, but in the rock world, you're still not gonna see a lot of men in dresses laid out on couches, trying to look pretty. We had that moment in the 1980s of hair metal, which was this hyper masculine music mixed with a lot of boys wearing makeup, but they still weren't wearing dresses.”

Back then, did Bowie think it would cause such a big hubbub? And was he prepared for questions that pursued him his entire career about his sexuality and his gender based on that?

“I don't think he really thought about it that deeply, in that he thought he was going to cause any kind of mass disturbance by doing this. I think it was something that he was very much interested in playing with. And it was something that he was living at the time. There's a lot of talk about Bowie being gay or bisexual or whatever. We want to define things, and he wasn't very much into defining his sexuality. He wasn't into defining the meaning of his songs. He left that very open for people, in the same way that he left his sexuality open.

There was a point where he said he was bisexual, there's a point where he said he was gay. He definitely during this time was having gay male sex. He was also with his wife, Angie, at the time. And I think it just says a lot about the fluidity of his self as an artist, and that we, as a society and a culture, are so interested in categorizing and defining people, songs, genres of music, and he was never interested in that. There's such a juxtaposition with him in this dress, and the storyline of the opening song ‘The Width of a Circle,’ even.”

How explicit was he in his lyrics? Not only in the song, but in his career, or at least in his early Ziggy Stardust phase, when it came to gender and sexuality?

“I think he alluded a lot. I don't know how explicit he ever was, because I don't think that was something he liked to do. He liked to have a porousness about his music and his lyrics and his identity as Bowie. And so he would allude to things, and you could make what you wanted to make of it. 

Later in the song, he said, ‘He swallowed his pride and puckered his lips / And showed me the leather belt ’round his hips / My knees were shaking my cheeks aflame / He said "You'll never go down to the Gods again."’ Is he talking about the devil? Or is he talking about the monster? Was he talking about gay male sex, however you want to read it? 

However, the song will serve you the most, is really what he did. And he did the same thing with his Ziggy work, and everywhere. There were enough drops in there that you could take the music and the song and make it what you needed it to be. And I think that's why he has lasted so long. And that's why he's such a part of queer culture, and straight male rock culture, and all of the culture, is that we want to identify. That's why his music sustains itself through that, because we can have these multiplicities.”

How do your students read him now? What do they say about Bowie and his influence on their lives?

“They're very interested. I have a couple of students that are working on Bowie’s queerness. And they are very interested in the idea that he said he was gay, said he was bisexual, was married to a woman, said he was a heterosexual. And they're really trying to be rigorous and understand, because we're so used to categorizing people and identities. 

They want to fix him somewhere and they're realizing that they can't, and they're finding that to be very, very interesting. And I'm watching the light bulbs go off in their heads, because then they're having conversations with me about ‘Oh, so I don't have to define myself constantly about who I am, and what I can be in.’ And I think that's a really wonderful thing about this class. And what it's giving to these students is that sort of freedom of exploring themselves.”

But Bowie, in the ‘90s, disavowed this performance. He played it very straight. He didn't do the Ziggy Stardust character anymore. He didn't dress up in dresses anymore. He famously married Iman, he had kids with two women, he, for all intents and purposes, was straight. In fact, he said he made a mistake saying he was gay. So how do your students view him in that context?

“Would you wear a dress if you were married to Iman? She's gonna wear a dress better than you any day. I think in the ‘90s, as we were going through the first wave of real discussion about identity politics in this country, or in the West, he did say he made a mistake saying he was gay. He didn't say he made a mistake having gay sex. But as he moved along his path in life, he decided that he was in love with these women and liked heterosexual sex maybe a bit more. We see this all the time. We see married women that have multiple children go and then become lesbians. And we see the reverse of it. 

So I do think it goes back to this idea of, do we have to have a fixed sexual identity? Does everybody have to have that? Or can we move around? I can't speak to what he thought. We never can do that. We can't read somebody's mind completely. But I do think he may have been a bit exhausted. It's the constant question with him. It was a constant question throughout his career. And I think maybe he wanted to stop talking about it in some ways, because I don't know that he thought that that really mattered so much anymore. I think he put his art out there, did his thing with it, and let that speak for itself.”

He wasn't an overt activist. And yet he, in a way, was, but without going down the normal route. He was able to give queer people power without doing it in the traditional sense.

“Absolutely. And I talked about this in a lot of my work, that people always say he was a political, but if you spend enough time with him, you know that he had things that he cared about, and he dropped enough in there for those who wanted to pay attention, like off his ‘The Next Day’ record. And he made the song ‘Valentine,’ and the music video that he made was clearly about mass shootings and high school shootings. And it was an anxiety that he had for a high school age daughter. 

Did he go out and say, ‘I want gun control laws to be changed?’ No, but he did make a commentary on it. And he made a commentary on gender by playing with his own, and just being a role model in that sort of way. And I don't think everybody has to be an activist in this marching in the streets and waving flags [sense]. We definitely need those people. But I think we need a variety of ways to assert and recognize other people and their identities that aren't just in that sort of traditional form. And I think he was one of those people.”

Credits

Guest:

  • Tiffany Naiman - professor of the course called "It's the Freakiest Show: David Bowie's Intertextual Imagination”