Media

David Bowie, R.I.P.: He Used His Voice for Others Who Were Ignored

The iconic artist piled up a strong progressive track record.

Photo Credit: Flickr / Stephen Luff

The beauty of David Bowie—and there are too many beautiful things to collect here—was not just his weirdness, or his innovation, or his endless capacity for change, but the way he managed to create art that spoke, clearly and resonantly, to so many. There are few artists (almost none, if we are being honest) who are embraced and loved across such broad communal, cultural, racial and musical divides, and for this, Bowie’s uniqueness was all the more stunning and precious.

Part of it was pure sonics. Bowie made incredible music that never fit neatly into a box, but was culled from so many different legacies and genres it became a category unto itself. He spanned glam and punk and post-punk and pop and experimental and soul and R&B. To do this well is no small feat. To do this brilliantly is almost impossible.

But there was this, too: Bowie made it part of his mission not just to be a remarkable artist, but to speak for those whose voices were not allowed to have his reach. In 1982, during an interview with MTV veejay Mark Goodman, he called out the network for its early refusal to play videos by black artists: 

Recognizing that his own videos would be played in heavy rotation, Bowie used the medium to attack Australian racism and discrimination against aboriginal people. The “Let’s Dance” clip was incredibly important for what it said about race and erasure in the country, and broadcast it around the world. The Guardian recalls that Bowie, in an interview with ABC television, said it was, “A direct statement on integration.” Speaking to MTV’s Kurt Loder, Bowie noted that “[i]n the north, there’s unbelievable intolerance. The Aborigines can’t even buy their drinks in the same bars—they have to go round the back and get them through what’s called a ‘dog hatch’. And then they’re forbidden from drinking them on the same side of the street as the bar.”

The female protagonist of the video, Joelene King, spoke to the Guardian in 2015 about the video's critical message. “It lets the world know that Australia has a black history,” she said. “That this history is alive and well. We’re still here.”

And there was Bowie’s androgyny, the way he played with gender fluidity before the term existed. In the 1970s, he alternately described himself as gay, then bisexual, though he later recanted, saying he’d always been “a closet heterosexual.” In any case, for millions of disaffected youth, he represented the freedom to be and express who they were. And likely still are, perhaps more openly, thanks to Bowie's presence.

I’m not ignoring Bowie’s brief flirtation with fascism in the 1970s. But so much of Bowie’s words and work have transcended what seems like a nod to what was then a horrible trend. At the end of the day, in his oddness, Bowie connected with the misfit within us all, which is perhaps why he was beloved in so many disparate places, by so many of differing stripes. Without getting lachrymose, I’ll end by saying this is, for so many of us, a heartbreaking day.

Dean Podestá, in perhaps one of the most awesome yet concise tributes, posted this on Twitter two days ago (rumors of Bowie’s illness had been swirling for some time), and it offers some consolation: “If you're ever sad, just remember the world is 4.543 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.”

Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.

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