The complicated legacy of David Bowie

Tributes lie beneath a mural of British singer David Bowie by artist Jimmy C in Brixton, south London, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016. Bowie, the other-worldly musician who broke pop and rock boundaries with his creative musicianship, nonconformity, striking visuals and a genre-spanning persona he christened Ziggy Stardust, died of cancer Sunday aged 69. He was born in Brixton. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

After the death of glam-rockstar and pop culture icon David Bowie last week, a huge outpouring of grief, sadness and fondness arose for the late musician, known for his both his solo career and his collaboration with Queen in the hit, “Under Pressure.”

Bowie’s impact on music obviously goes without saying. As a singer, he was theatrical - a live performer at heart, with many lively songs like “Suffragette City”  and more eclectic ones like “Space Oddity.” Bowie also performed with artists such as Pink Floyd guitarist David GIlmour, Arcade Fire and Mick Jagger.

Bowie also had a large influence on the fashion world at the time. Eighth-semester English major Alexandra Bell said he was one of the most influential dressers of the time.

“He handpicked aspects of his surroundings and background like the greatest of chefs, cutting up materials, turning them inside out, and combining them seamlessly into something new and vibrant,” Bell said, also mentioning that Bowie’s clothing style reflected how his music pushed several cultural boundaries for each decade he was in.

For instance, Bell said his Kabuki mime experience reflected the excitement of space travel in the 60s and 70s, as well as the androgynous elegance of the Thin White Duke persona in the 80s and the dark grungy style of Bowie within the 90s.

Bell concluded that Bowie’s openness to change and his love of producing art transcends time and genre.

Bowie not only had a huge impact on the fashion and music scene, but also in social consciousness. Though he wasn’t necessarily an activist the way famous artists like Joan Baez or Bono are, Bowie still remained aware of several cultural issues at the time, including criticizing MTV in 1983 for not covering black musicians enough.

Take his creative personas - including an androgynous alien-like rock star named Ziggy Stardust - and statements on gender and sexuality that, while not exactly academically professional by modern standards, had sentiments that resonated with many of his fans. It showed people that it was essentially okay to deviate from the norm and that they should express themselves however they wanted.

After getting married to a woman in 1970, Bowie came out as gay to journalist Michael Watts in 1972. Four years later, he told Playboy Magazine that he was bisexual, and in the next decade, Bowie told Rolling Stone that making those statements was “the biggest mistake I ever made” and that in reality he was a “closet heterosexual."

Even after his death, perceptions of his orientation still wildly vary, though New York Times writer Katie Rogers wrote how Bowie’s edginess “earned him fast stardom and the freedom to play with gender and sexuality,” mentioning that Bowie often played with his personas in a way that made his viewers rethink gender.

“Wherever he fell on the spectrum, Mr. Bowie understood that the entire concept was part spectacle,” Rogers wrote. “The preoccupation with the was-he-or-wasn’t-he part of Mr. Bowie’s sexuality often overshadows his more nuanced contributions to queer culture through imagery and style.”

Fourth-semester electrical engineering major Alexandra Zavaglia said Bowie’s impact on queer culture should be measured based on how it was received directly during his era and not necessarily just how it is received today.

“He would have had to made music that reached out to people,” Zavaglia said in reference to how Bowie may have been able to show kids who didn’t necessarily align with a heteronormative, cisgender norms that they could still be successful.

“Someone who has no idea would just think he’s weird, so his influence was a combination of his appearance and music,” Zavaglia continued. “And that’s what he did so well.”

However, not all of Bowie’s legacy is positive. It’s important to mention that Bowie himself has a history of sexual misconduct, which includes a sexual affair with a 15-year old girl, Lori Maddox, according to Mattix in an article published in Thrillist.

Though Maddox wrote that their sexual relationship was consensual - if not common for many rock stars of the era - and that she didn’t feel manipulated, her age at the time made her legally unable to consent. By definition, that is rape.

It’s hard to ignore a pretty horrifying charge - and people certainly shouldn’t brush it off or try to blame Maddox for Bowie’s actions. If anything, it shows that Bowie, along with being a transcendent performer presenting revolutionary views on sexuality and gender, was human and that he made a horrendous mistake near the height of his fame - though people trying to accurately remember Bowie should recognize these two aspects of his legacy as separate and not comparable parts of whom he was.

Nonetheless, even with a dark past, Bowie’s legacy and performances within the music, fashion and pop culture world remain fascinating despite his passing. 


Anokh Palakurthi is the associate Life editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at anokh.palakurthi@uconn.edu