Today it’s widely accepted that David Bowie was one of the most influential and talented artists in the twentieth century. Though it’s only recently that Bowie’s talent for creating and manipulating personas is becoming a subject for closer critical examination. Throughout his career Bowie has employed a variety of self-presentations, reflecting not only the aesthetic shifts in his music but also coming trends in popular culture. Although contemporary critics are only now beginning to assess Bowie’s talents in this vein and their influence on artists like Madonna and Lady Gaga, Bowie himself was the first to question and probe his role as a cultural “chameleon”.
In 1979, with the release of Lodger and the close of a critically successful run of three art-pop albums recorded in Germany and France, David Bowie turned his scrupulous mind to his own public persona and art. Having turned thirty a few years before, Bowie sought to create a reflexive visual text, employing the help and guidance of esteemed video artist and director David Mallet. Mallet, like Bowie, had become ensconced in the avant-garde sweeping central Europe at the end of the decade. It would be these influences, from Joseph Beuys to Klaus Nomi that would enable Bowie and Mallet to realize their reflexive intent in the form of the Boys Keep Swinging music video.
Boys Keep Swinging is a straightforward song off of Lodger that satirizes the machismo of English punk, juxtaposing masculine signifiers with a homoeroticism derivative of the novels of Jean Genet. The visual accompaniment devised by Bowie and Mallet depicts David Bowie’s Thin White Duke persona of 1975 and 1976 (Young Americans and Station To Station) performing with a trio of female back-up singers. The format of this artificial performance makes several visual references to the revived burlesque and cabaret cultures blossoming in West Berlin around the time Bowie produced Iggy Pop’s The Idiot in 1977. But the most significant allusion is one to Bowie’s own past, directly referencing the famous interview with Melody Maker in 1972 to promote Ziggy Stardust in which Bowie confessed to being gay (though this statement had later been revised to bisexual) as well as to the original album cover for 1970’s The Man Who Sold The World. As the video enters it’s musical outro, the three back-up singers are each revealed to be Bowie in drag.
The significance of this is two fold. Ever the student of human sexuality, Bowie indicates the non-existence of the sexual binary, suggesting that each polarity is present in the single individual. Reflexively, this sequence indicates something more personal and more involved in the Bowie persona as well. If Bowie is both male and female, then he is neither straight nor gay, but an entity of sexual fluidity. Thus, Bowie abandons once and for all the ambiguity of his 70s personas. The manner in which Bowie achieves this, in drag, also serves as a kind of self-parody. When Bowie first began to embrace the glam rock aesthetic of Marc Bolan late in 1971, he was often criticized by critics for presenting himself as a woman, revealing a dose of homophobia in the British music press whose scandalizing of Bowie served Main Man’s publicity department very well.
The cultural criticism and reflexivity apparent in Boys Keep Swinging is essentially a warm-up to the more masterfully executed and aesthetically complicated Ashes To Ashes music video of 1980, which again re-teamed Bowie and Mallet. This time the song itself is a piece of reflexive art that dispels the romanticism of Bowie’s Major Tom character in his first hit song Space Oddity (a song Bowie re-recorded late in 1979 on the song’s tenth anniversary as a Japanese single).
Whilst the song debunks Bowie’s first public character persona, the music video employs a series of visual tactics to push that intent further. In the vein of the infant New Romantic movement, Bowie casts himself as Pierrot. This casting choice is a reference to Bowie’s days with Lindsay Kemp but also it is a means by which to equate his public persona with that of the bumbling pantomime. In essence, Bowie reveals and stresses the fact that his “characters”, from Major Tom to Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke, are nothing more than performance, a means for escape. David Bowie the private human being and mastermind behind these presentations remains elusive in the visual dialogue of the video, and therefore endows the video with the potential to be a kind of invitation to Bowie fans to join in on the fun of his next persona, which, as it turned out, was the bleach blonde pop singer of the Serious Moonlight tour. The significance of self examination in public represented by Ashes To Ashes is a distinctly postmodern device, though it’s influence within the music industry cannot be overstated.