“There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’d like to come and meet us
But he thinks he’d blow our minds…
—David Bowie, 1972
Forty years ago, David Bowie told an interviewer, “I’d love to enter politics. I will one day. I’d adore to be prime minister.”
Rock stars have gone into politics, in Bowie’s Britain and around the world. But it was never a serious ambition for this particular rocker, whose death Sunday at age 69 shocked a world that Bowie had proven could be changed by more than elections and economics. Like his intellectual icon, the unruly and unconfined socialist George Orwell, Bowie eschewed ideological predictability for boundary-breaking expeditions along the frontiers of cultural change.
David Bowie declared himself “apolitical.” Yet he taught us how to rebel.
Bowie abhorred the corruptions of empire (he famously rejected designation as a commander of the Order of the British Empire, along with a knighthood), and he had no taste for rigid partisanship, saying in the fall of 1977 (even as his song “‘Heroes’” was heard as an anthem of global liberation), “The more I travel and the less sure I am about exactly which political philosophies are commendable.”
Melody Maker’s cover story in that season when punk rock was ripping it all up had Bowie rejecting his own outrageous statements of the past (“I am not a fascist”) and offering the sober explanation that “The more government systems I see, the less enticed I am to give my allegiance to any set of people, so it would be disastrous for me to adopt a definitive point of view, or to adopt a party of people and say ‘these are my people.’”
On the occasions when Bowie did adopt a definitive point of view—as when he expressed opposition to the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence—his stances could be frustrating for those who came to recognize that the man whose music so frequently celebrated insurrection did not always rush to the barricades. Bowie played benefits for Tibet House. His songs called out militarism and nuclear madness, wars of whim, and surveillance states. Yet he never engaged in antiwar and civil-liberties activism with the precision and energy of his most brilliant collaborator, Brian Eno, who in the 2000s emerged as an outspoken critic of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and American President George W. Bush.
Bowie changed politics as Enlightenment thinkers and artists once did: by challenging societal assumptions and the limits of debate in profound ways. So profound that, in recognition of his adventurous Berlin albums in general and the song “‘Heroes’” in particular, the German Foreign Office on Monday tweeted “Thank you for helping to bring down the #wall.”
As a global superstar of the 1970s, David Bowie broke the boundaries of gender roles and sexuality. And he did so with such seeming ease, such delight, that for his fans it was suddenly imaginable to be precisely who you were—not who someone else told you to be. In the moment of the Stonewall riots, pioneering gay- and lesbian-rights marches and the first political expressions of a liberation sensibility, David Bowie embraced men and women, wore Mr. Fish dresses on magazine and album covers, and suggested that the sexual revolution of the 1960s could and should be even more revolutionary.
Bowie was sensual, Bowie was adventurous, and Bowie was a star. He remade himself as the fabulously androgynous Ziggy Stardust at a time when television was still airing new episodes of Gunsmoke, and Richard Nixon was in his first term as president. Suddenly, it seemed as if everything was changing very fast—and very much for the better. Mainstream media and mainstream politics were what they were; but there, on television and in the music magazines, was David Bowie casting seductive glances in the direction of Mick Ronson.
“Just before he launched his Ziggy persona, in January 1972, Bowie had told Melody Maker he was bisexual. And on 1 July, about 700 people walked from Trafalgar Square to Hyde Park in the first Gay Pride march,” recalled Joe Moran in a Guardian essay marking the 40th anniversary of a stereotype-shattering 1972 British TV appearance by Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. “The world was changing, but not fast enough. While a pop star putting his arm round another man on television might not look very revolutionary now, it seems to have been a liberating moment for young people coming to terms with their sexualities.”
It would make no sense to suggest that Bowie did more than the brave campaigners for LGBTQ rights who came before him, and whose activism began to hit its stride at roughly the same time as the Ziggy’s stardom. That’s not how to measure the changes we’ve been waiting for. Yet it would be impossible to explain the now we have reached, this moment when the initialism “LGBTQ” is widely embraced and when we know it will be more widely embraced, without acknowledging and understanding the role David Bowie played in getting us here.