“A Crash Course for the Ravers”: Bowie Studies Comes of Age




NO SOONER HAD David Bowie been laid to rest — dressed in an Apollo-era spacesuit, sealed in a transparent casket, and enshrined on a catafalque in the moon’s Tycho crater (in homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, the inspiration for his 1969 hit, “Space Oddity”) — than fans, pop-culture critics, and scholars began mining religious imagery, occult allusions, and hermetic symbolism from his last record, the cryptic, portentous Blackstar (2016).

If only. In truth, Bowie was cremated in New Jersey, his ashes presumably scattered in Bali, as his will directed. But can we imagine a more fitting resting place for the man whose many epithets — Starman, Space Oddity, The Man Who Fell to Earth — played up the myth of his alien origin? Besides, Bowie never scrupled at stretching the truth (or, for that matter, flat-out fabricating) in the service of self-mythologization. “Part of my entertaining factor is lying to you,” the old faker teased, in a late-life interview.

Bowie scholars, professional and amateur, pored over the mini-movie for Blackstar’s 10-minute title track. Who was the young woman with a tail and a unibrow? A bacchante, her catlike appendage and feral eyebrows evidence of her kinship with wild nature? A vestal virgin who moonlights as a lycanthrope? Strolling through an extraterrestrial landscape in nothing but a dress, she moves dreamily, like one of those sleepwalking nudes in the surrealist paintings of Paul Delvaux. A black sun hangs low in the sky, haloed by an eerie corona. Opening the golden helmet of a long-dead astronaut, she removes a skull, a jewel-encrusted fetish worthy of a medieval reliquary. Gaunt, frail, his eyes covered by a bandage sewn with buttons where his eyes would be, Bowie sings an eerie, Arabic-sounding dirge about the “villa of Ormen,” where “a solitary candle” stands “in the center of it all​” and “on the day of execution / only women kneel and smile.”​ Is he an incarnation of Tiresias, the blind seer whose ghost Odysseus journeys to Hades to consult in Homer’s Odyssey? (As it happens, the gods changed Tiresias into a woman, then back into a man — a mythological premonition of the androgynous persona Bowie rode to fame in the 1970s.)

We see the solitary candle wavering in the dark, a stock symbol of mortality. A coven of young women jitters and jigs in the throes of religious ecstasy — or demonic possession. Wielding the astronaut’s skull, their high priestess presides over an inscrutable ritual. Bowie reappears, this time as a wild-eyed preacher brandishing a black bible adorned with a black star. (Or is it a grimoire, a book of sorcerer’s spells? At his lowest ebb in the mid-1970s, Bowie immersed himself in black magic.) Three men, dressed as scarecrows, writhe on crucifixes — a grotesque parody of Christ on Golgotha, flanked by the two thieves. A rough beast lumbers out of the thicket surrounding the straw men. Is it Bacchus, come to join his female devotees in their ecstasies? Or some harbinger of apocalypse, straight out of the Book of Revelation? At one point, we see a skeleton — Bowie’s soul? — floating heavenward, toward the black sun. “Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen,” Bowie sings in “Lazarus” (Blackstar). “You know, I’ll be free …”

Devout fans lost no time in doing what devout fans do, subjecting their idol’s last words to the sort of hermeneutic scrutiny usually reserved for the gnostic gospels (which, by the way, Bowie knew and loved, ranking Elaine Pagels’s classic work on the subject among his 100 favorite books). Biblical exegesis is the original fan culture, reading against the grain to reveal intertextual connections, subversive counterreadings, personal resonances. But in the age of Google and social media, the revelations of cognoscenti huddled in blog comment sections or Reddit discussions are up for grabs. Taken up by other subcultures and, ultimately, by the mainstream media, they become threads in a cat’s cradle of interwoven meanings.

Bowie superfans were quick off the mark with between-the-lines readings of Blackstar and its videos, identifying the dead astronaut as Bowie’s alter ego, the doomed Major Tom, lost in space in “Space Oddity.” The smiley-face patch sewn onto his spacesuit was a fond farewell, obviously, from Bowie to his son Duncan, a filmmaker whose existential SF movie, Moon, features a computer that registers its reactions with smileys and other emoticons.

A black star, it was widely noted, is a type of lesion. (Never mind that it’s a benign lesion that mimics breast cancer, whereas Bowie died of liver cancer. Why let an inconvenient detail or two get in the way in the rush to explication?) It’s also a song by Elvis Presley, an obscure country ballad whose skip-to-my-lou perkiness belies its death-haunted lyric: “Every man has a black star / A black star over his shoulder / And when a man sees his black star / He knows his time, his time has come.” Bowie was a fervent Elvis fan as a teen and made much of the fact that he and the King shared the same birthday, January 8. Curiously, that was Roy Batty’s “inception date,” an odd coincidence that didn’t escape the notice of Bowiephiles. Batty was the android in Blade Runner — a movie Bowie loved — whose Wagnerian dying words (“All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain”) Bowie quoted on the card accompanying the flowers he sent to the funeral of his half-brother, Terry Burns, a schizophrenic who committed suicide by lying down in the path of an oncoming train. Connections, conjunctions, synchronicities …

Occultists and students of esoteric mysticism weighed in, too. Ormen is Norwegian for “serpent,” they pointed out, and serpents proliferate in the writings of the English occultist Aleister Crowley, where their undulations somehow symbolize the interrelatedness of life and death. Crowley and the Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn with which he was associated were among Bowie’s passing fascinations in the 1970s, an interest reflected in “Quicksand,” on his 1971 record Hunky Dory: “I’m closer to the Golden Dawn / immersed in Crowley’s uniform / of imagery.” Then again, a Reddit user thought, maybe “Ormen” was a pun on “oar man,” as in Charon, who ferries souls across the river Styx to the afterworld. After all, she suggested, the buttons on Bowie’s eyes resemble the coins placed on the eyes of the dead, which makes us think of the coins the Greeks buried with their dead to pay Charon’s fee. Au contraire, another Reddit user argued, Ormen is an allusion to The Path of the Serpent in the Jewish mystical teachings of the Kabbalah, a “journey to enlightenment for those who climb the stairway to God.” (It’s not much of a stretch: in the late 1970s, when Bowie went down the rabbit hole of occultism and mysticism, he incorporated Kabbalistic references into the lyrics of the title track of his 1976 album, Station to Station.)

And then there’s that uncanny black sun, the Sol niger of alchemy, where it signifies a symbolic descent into the underworld, or impending illness, death, or disaster. Bowie, who at 69 clearly had mortality on his mind, was diagnosed with a galloping liver cancer after he made the video — yet more evidence, in fans’ eyes, that he was Not of This World, a starman with second sight. “Traditionally the Black Sun presages the unleashing of destructive forces upon the universe, society, or the individual,” says The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, noting that it’s “the inverted image of the noonday Sun, hence the universal sense of ill omen attaching to eclipses.” After he died on January 10 of last year, a half-serious Unified Field Theory of David Bowie began making the rounds on the web, inspired by the belief that his death was the first domino in a cosmic chain that included the deaths of Prince, Leonard Cohen, and Alan Rickman, not to mention Brexit, a flurry of terrorist attacks, and the coming of the Trump presidency. “David Bowie was the glue holding the universe together,” a forlorn fan tweeted.

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Bowie invites biblical exegesis partly because his work is thick with religious imagery and occult references, but also because his use of William S. Burroughs’s cut-up method to create oblique, free-associated lyrics turns his songs into “writerly” texts, as Roland Barthes would say — intentionally “incomplete” works that beckon us to fill in their gaps, collaborating in the act of making meaning. “I come from almost a traditional school now of deconstructing phrases and constructing them again in what is considered a random way,” Bowie told an interviewer, who replied, “So you’d be very happy if I and another journalist had different ideas of what the songs were about?” Said Bowie, “Absolutely. As Roland Barthes said in the mid ’60s, that was the way interpretation would start to flow. It would begin with society and culture itself. The author becomes really a trigger.”

It’s a wonder so few cultural critics and academics have taken Bowie seriously until now. To be sure, a handful of rock writers have done him justice: Jon Savage, Simon Frith, Hugo Wilcken (in his fastidiously researched monograph on Bowie’s pioneering record Low), and, for the prosecution, Ellen Willis and the hilariously hostile Lester Bangs. The cultural studies scholar Dick Hebdige is thoughtful about Bowie in his landmark study, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, and Camille Paglia has gotten off a few memorable one-liners. Yet until recently the academy hasn’t taken much notice — a confounding blind spot, since Bowie’s febrile intellect, magpie erudition, and postmodern aesthetic of appropriation and eclecticism, irony and metanarrative self-reflection have produced a body of work that’s a no-brainer for MLA panels and doctoral dissertations. Nonetheless, most of what’s been written about Bowie consists of swoony profiles, coffee-table photo books, and, roughly every two years, another potted biography (no thanks to the man himself, who routinely declined biographers’ requests for interviews, dismissing their efforts as “a bloody cottage industry”).

In the last few years, however, Bowieology — serious inquiry into Bowie’s body of work that may or may not make use of critical theory, cultural studies, sociology, rock criticism, fan-culture ethnography, and the writings of fans themselves — has come of age. [1] For James Penner, writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Bowieology comes into its own in 2015, a banner year in which no less than three academic titles hit the shelves: David Bowie: Critical Perspectives and Enchanting David Bowie: Space/Time/Body/Memory, both telephone-book-thick anthologies of critical essays, and Future Nostalgia: Performing David Bowie by Shelton Waldrep, a professor of Victorian literature and, according to Penner, “leading scholar in David Bowie Studies” who “has been teaching a senior thesis course (‘The Phenomenology of David Bowie’) for over 10 years at the University of Southern Maine.” The following year saw the release of yet another anthology of critical writings, David Bowie and Philosophy: Rebel, Rebel.

I’d start the timeline in 2009, when Chris O’Leary launched his groundbreaking blog, Pushing Ahead of the Dame, whose posts O’Leary revised and collected, in print form, as Rebel Rebel (Zero Books, 2015). O’Leary’s blog is the Lipstick Traces of Bowie studies. Other early contributions to the critical canon of Bowieology would have to include Bowie (OR Books, 2014), the philosopher Simon Critchley’s inspired mix of Heideggerian philosophizing, fanboy memoir, and close reading; Simon Reynolds’s magnum opus on glam rock and its legacy, Shock and Awe (Dey Street, 2016); and, in all immodesty, my Kindle single, All the Young Dudes: Why Glam Rock Matters (Boing Boing, 2013).

In an interview for The Quietus, Critchley put the case for Bowieology passionately:

My aim in Bowie is very simple: to try and find concepts that do justice to Bowie’s art in ways that are neither music journalism, dime store psychology, biography or crappy social history. I still don’t think we have a language that gives the huge importance of pop culture its due, that describes and dignifies it in the right way. For me, and for many many millions of others, the world first opened as a set of possibilities through pop music, especially Bowie’s music. Bowie is the most important artist tout court of the past six decades and someone just needs to say that and try and explain how his songs justify that claim.

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Critchley and I sat down in January 2015, shortly after his book had come out, to discuss Bowie and Bowieology. Our interview took place in his office at the New School in New York, where he is the Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy.

(Author’s Note: The following interview was edited for clarity and concision and, in the case of my often overlong, meandering questions, extensively rewritten. I make no apology for such editorial Photoshopping, but do believe the reader should know the following transcript isn’t always a literal one. — M.D.)

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MARK DERY: You told me you hoped Bowie would one day be taken as seriously as Wallace Stevens. But there’s always a tension in Bowie, I think, between his commercial aspirations — his inner Anthony Newley, the side of him that did TV duets with Cher and Bing Crosby, the arena-rock Bowie of Let’s Dance — and the bohemian Bowie who is drawn to avant-gardism’s bleeding edge, yet can never quite bring himself to take the plunge. His attempts to channel the “Shock of the New,” as the art critic Robert Hughes called it, never quite convince. Take his concept album Outside (1995), embarrassingly described by Bowie, in his liner notes, as a “non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle.” A shambolic mess inspired, in part, by “the Viennese castrationists and the blood-rituals of Nitsch,” it feels strained — calculatedly shocking in an art-school undergrad way, as if Bowie’s playing the part of an avant-garde artist, rather than making truly iconoclastic art. Yet when he manages to harmonize his mainstream and outsider impulses in avant-pop efforts like Low (1977), “Heroes” (1977), Lodger (1979), and Scary Monsters (1980), he’s unbeatable.

SIMON CRITCHLEY: I think that’s all true. Maybe with the bands he name-checks there’s also that kind of relationship that he had with Iggy and Lou Reed: he’d like to be that, but he knows he’s not. I got into Bowie the way everybody else [in England] did, watching Top of the Pops on June 7, 1972, but then it was my sister and my mother, who are both hairdressers and aren’t educated in any way, who went out and bought the albums. Bowie spoke to both of them in a very direct way. So Bowie has always had that ability to cross over — to have a huge audience and to give that huge audience some taste of something else, some darkness, some experimentation. Bowie makes a world that is a rich, dark, strange, and beautiful world, full of culture and oddity, available to largely working-class boys and girls. Bowie was a conduit through which a whole world became possible, but there was a specific sort of class identity to that, at least in the United Kingdom.

He knew what it felt like to be marooned in suburbia, dreaming of life on Mars. In the BBC documentary Hang On to Yourself, he recalls his “desperation and exhaustion with the blandness” of the London suburb of Bromley, where he grew up. His family was middle class and middlebrow, yet his half-brother Terry Burns introduced him, early on, to Ginsberg and Kerouac, Coltrane and Mingus. For fans like me, marooned in the teenage wasteland of suburban California in the 1970s, Bowie was our Terry, a conduit to “a rich, dark, strange, and beautiful world, full of culture and oddity.” I can remember poring over an early Bowie bio, a cheesy, rushed-into-print paperback called The David Bowie Story (1974), by George Tremlett. The map of Bowie’s tastes, and his cultural references — Nietzsche, Lalique glassware, The Happy Prince and Other Tales by Oscar Wilde, J. M. W. Turner, Tibetan Buddhism — were the Baedeker of a better world.

In Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine [a 1998 cinematic valentine to Ziggy and the glam-rock era], there’s the Christian Bale character, the fan, pointing at the TV and saying, “That’s me, that’s who I am”; there was that feeling of, “Yes!” So there’s that sense of adoration and identification, and then the kind of archiving, the collecting, that went along with that. The other movie that gets it is Control [Anton Corbijn’s 2007 biopic about Ian Curtis, singer for the bleak post-punk band Joy Division]. It’s about Curtis and his marriage, largely, but the first scene is the young Ian Curtis returning to his shithole maisonette flat outside Manchester with a Bowie album in a brown paper bag and then taking it out, and then you’ve got him applying mascara and collecting clippings from the press, and through that Ian Curtis educates himself.

I think for all of us, all the people I hung out with before I went to university (which was late in my case), music was our education. It was our passport to being a weirdo — a literate, knowledgeable weirdo. You would just look at the pictures. Bowie was a religious icon; you’d look at him and think, “Well, how can I be that? How can I shape myself in that way?” It meant dying your hair. When I had hair, I had very long hair, which I used to henna, and I had very bad skin, so I used to use a lot of cover and eye makeup. The clothing I was more in control of: around ’79, when I was 19, it was all vintage — double-breasted jackets, pleated trousers, winklepicker shoes, a very film-noir kind of aesthetic. Bowie was an image in relationship to which I and everybody else tried to craft ourselves. It seems a strange thing to do, doesn’t it? I mean, fans of Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj don’t dress up like them, except on Halloween. That’s how we were all the time. This wasn’t dressing up; this was dressing. 

As a young man, Bowie liked to name-drop Nietzsche, and on The Man Who Sold the World (1970) he made a foray into Nietzschean heavy metal, if there is such a thing [“The Supermen”]. In 1976, when his cocaine psychosis was blurring the line between himself and the Thin White Duke he was playing onstage — a character he later called “an emotionless Aryan superman” — he struck a Nietzschean note when he told a Playboy interviewer, “I always had a repulsive sort of need to be something more than human. I felt very very puny as a human. I thought, ‘Fuck that. I want to be a superman.’” You’re a noted Nietzsche scholar, yet you don’t do much in your book with Bowie’s connections to the philosopher.

There’s an image that Derrida has somewhere and it’s always stuck with me, something he came up with in the early days of personal computers, where he talked about Nietzsche as a software program with multiple applications. I think that’s right; there’s a program that was Nietzsche, and that program has elaborated itself in different ways in different contexts, and all of them are true. So I wouldn’t say the Nazis got Nietzsche wrong; I’m sure Goebbels and Hitler were good readers of their Nietzsche. Nietzsche is an exemplary philosopher in the sense that he speaks to people. He says something to people that is of huge importance to them, something that they find in the work. Now, scholars can come along and assess that, compare it with other interpretations, but that in a sense is less important to me; it’s that Nietzsche makes a claim on you. When I was 19, Nietzsche made that claim on me. I didn’t understand much at all, but the claim was made, and it registered.

Who is Bowie’s Nietzsche? 

I think Bowie’s Nietzsche is a 19-year-old’s Nietzsche, that Nietzsche which is furious, that finds the world to be nothing: a kind of a nihilism that is angry at God, often without any belief in God but still angry at God, and who believes that values are a bunch of bullshit and we need to overturn them. Also, Nietzsche works in aphorisms; it’s like song lyrics. I think you can have very sophisticated, elaborate interpretations of Nietzsche and they can be fascinating, but that, for me, is less interesting than the misinterpretations of Nietzsche, which make something happen. So Bowie’s Nietzsche is like that.

Speaking of Goebbels and Hitler, how close to the Nazi Nietzsche was the Nietzsche of Bowie’s megalomaniacal, coke-addled Thin White Duke period? He caught some serious flak for his remarks in that infamous Playboy interview, which are worth quoting at length: 

I’d love to enter politics. I will one day. I’d adore to be Prime Minister. And, yes, I believe very strongly in fascism. The only way we can speed up the sort of liberalism that’s hanging foul in the air at the moment is to speed up the progress of a right-wing, totally dictatorial tyranny and get it over as fast as possible. People have always responded with greater efficiency under a regimental leadership […] People aren’t very bright, you know. They say they want freedom, but when they get the chance, they pass up Nietzsche and choose Hitler […]

In the mid-’70s, when Bowie makes those pronouncements, what he’s diagnosing is a kind of malaise within Britain. He’s making a critique of the vacuity of mainstream politics in the mid-’70s. The reason punk works in Britain is because it’s in the mid-’70s that the consequences of the loss of empire really become clear, both in the sense of economic crisis, and then in the presence in Britain of those people that were formerly in the empire, mainly from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent, and the racism that ensued from that and the way that played out in popular culture. Bowie, by that time, is sufficiently distant from England (I think he left England early in ’74 and never lived there after that period for any consistent length of time), so his fascism — his sentimental nationalism — comes out of a sense of estrangement from Britain and makes him whimsical for some identity which was never really there in the first place. It’s a sentimental, misguided, distanced relationship to nationalism. A lot of people fell for that. There was a sense in which here is a society that is in drift and decay and disorganization, and there needs to be a strong leader to put it right, and Bowie at his craziest says, “I’d be a good leader.”

And then there’s the aestheticization of politics and monumentalization, and, thinking about Adorno, there’s a direct connection between Wagnerian opera and the advertising jingle and the spectacle of popular music, which is kind of fascistic. We have to insert National Socialism within the history of propaganda, which is a 20th-century phenomenon; the understanding of National Socialism as a cinematic project, as a visual project, is clear in Goebbels from very early on. Which can then lead you to the Adornian position of: we need to place this under a kind of prohibition of images. That goes too far, but it’s what leads to the aesthetics of modernism and abstraction as a counterreaction to that. In pop music, there’s a massive return of all of those temptations. Nietzsche has this line in The Birth of Tragedy where he asks, “What would the Dionysian look like?” He says, “Imagine the masses, their faces bowed to the dust, with Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ being played over the top; that is the Dionysian.” Of course what he’s imagining there is a rock concert.

And Bowie, in his Ziggy period, comes onstage to the strains of the Clockwork Orange version of the “Ode to Joy.”

What we can say with Bowie is that he has a self-consciousness of that, so he kills Ziggy.

You mentioned the influx, in the 1970s, of people from the former colonies, and the racist backlash that triggered. Thinking about Bowie’s flirtations with fascist chic, which were hot on the heels of his embrace of a kind of white negritude in Young Americans (1975), what can we say about Bowie and race? Was Young Americans an exercise in minstrelsy — cultural appropriation, as we call it now? Or a “Starman’s own sui generis take on The Funk,” as Greg Tate has argued? Tate thinks Bowie is “that rarity — a white rock artist whose appropriations of black kulcha never felt like a rip-off but more like a sharing of radical and bumptious ideations between like-minded freaks.” Either way, Bowie’s relationship with blackness demands a lot more deconstruction than it’s gotten. 

Well, it’s another kind of fantasy projection, isn’t it? I like Young Americans, but I can see why people dislike it. I think what it allows Bowie at the zenith of his creativity is that he’s got a black rhythm section, [drummer] Dennis Davis and [bassist] George Murray, and [guitarist] Carlos Alomar [who is Latino], that kind of spindly one-line soul-guitar thing, and the bass and drums are clearly moving in a way that’s different from the way rock bands are moving, and that changes music — certainly, British music — decisively. So there’s an upbeat version of this story. But there is a kind of fetishism, a kind of projection, that’s very questionable in all sorts of ways, for sure.

Lester Bangs, never a fan on the best of days, argued in his review of one of Bowie’s Philly soul–inspired shows, just before the release of Young Americans, that Bowie’s relationship to black music was all about borrowed authenticity. 

Yeah, it’s sincerity and authenticity — Lionel Trilling, right? There’s a sincerity in Bowie, but it’s not devoid of artifice; it’s a sincerity that comes through artifice. I think of a song like “Heat” [The Next Day, 2013], where you’ve got this set of allusions based on a Mishima story — “Mishima’s dog / Trapped between the rocks” — and that lyric, “My father ran the prison.” There’s not much going on in the song but it’s incredibly powerful: he’s read something; he’s ventriloquizing it; he’s faking it in his way; but he’s able to affect a tone which is true. But what’s much more endemic to American popular music, which obviously goes back to its roots in folk and country and Delta blues, is the fact that this is the kind of DNA out of which the whole thing grows — the deep structure of things — whereas in Britain this is always a fake, a simulacrum.

Popular music is about illusions, which in other places are taken hugely seriously, that are incorporated and reflected back. There was this debate between Iggy Azalea and Azealia Banks (who’ve got the same name, mysteriously, though one’s a white Australian and one’s a black girl from Harlem; they’re both producing hip-hop). Azealia Banks is complaining about the white appropriation of hip-hop; what she feels is hers is being stolen. But the history of popular music for the last 70 years is a history of theft and appropriation, which has made these extraordinary things like Bowie possible. Also, it reflects back, so that American popular music is transformed by the British imitation of American popular music, from the success of The Beatles onward. So there’s this kind of mirror play back and forth, and I’m happy with that, but yes, certain people lose out. 

Of course, the Otherness Bowie is most closely associated with, in the mass mind, is queerness. Flaunting your Bowie fandom, in the Southern California suburbia of my 1970s youth, was an invitation to gay-bashing, especially if you dressed the part. Bowiephiles were presumptive homos, in the parlance of the day. Did being a Bowie fan carry the same connotations in the United Kingdom, or did the long history of female impersonation in mainstream English culture — the pantomime dame in music hall, that sort of thing — create some space for genderplay and define a straight masculinity less anxious about policing its boundaries?

There is a kind of elasticity to masculinity within mainstream English culture, which includes someone like Morrissey. What exactly is Morrissey’s sexuality? It’s unimportant; he’s part of a continuity, an aesthetic tradition that obviously includes Wilde, but it’s not radical in the sense that it’s not politically radical. Actually, it can be intensely reactionary, very conservative. At the same time, someone like Quentin Crisp, who was persecuted at an awful time, can become an iconic figure by the 1970s and celebrated. Or when George Michael was discovered in that public toilet in Los Angeles because the guy from the LAPD makes a pass at him, George said in interviews, “I never could pass up the opportunity for a free lunch,” and that turned him into a hero back in Britain! His album sales went through the roof, and then he released a compilation called Ladies & Gentlemen, which is the name of toilets, right? And so the video is set in a toilet! He turns the whole thing into a series of beautiful jokes. So there’s an elasticity, a latitude around masculinity and femininity in the United Kingdom.

One of the things that has really perplexed me in my 11 years in New York is trying to understand American masculinity. Here, it’s all pussies and dicks — a genital fixation — and a real terror of homosexuality. You can have movies like The Interview, where there’ll be this endless joke about the word “gay,” and that will get people cracking up. There’s this terror around male homosexuality — gayness — which then means that taking a stand against [homophobia] becomes this big political alternative. So there’s a kind of elasticity but also a kind of lovely reactionary quality to masculinity in England that I miss a little bit over here.

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Mark Dery is a cultural critic and essayist. He is writing a biography of the artist Edward Gorey for Little, Brown. Dery’s latest book is the essay collection I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-By Essays on American Dread, American Dreams (University of Minnesota Press).

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[1] Academics call the emerging discipline “Bowie studies”; I prefer Bowieology, a term whose mock gravitas dares us to use it with a straight face. Like the man himself, who maintained an ironic distance from his day job (rock god), the self-seriousness of “Bowieology” takes the piss out of academic pretension. It reminds us that Bowie studies happens not just in graduate seminars but in rock criticism, Reddit threads, blog posts, and Facebook discussions, too; the academy doesn’t own the copyright to deep thought.


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