† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice and Considering Hate, is co-founder of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.
Crimes of Style ~ David Bowie (1947-2016), One Year On…
by nancy a heitzeg
We interrupt our regularly scheduled Criminal InJustice programming – again! – to comment on the passing of the iconic David Robert Jones. But perhaps this is not any deviation at all, but rather an expansion of the boundaries — as it was always with Bowie too — an exploration of the role of trangressive imagination in changing the world, a world overly bound by restrictive and frankly often trivial norms tied to an ethic of policing and punishment.
Some like to say that Bowie (much like Andy Warhol) wasn’t political — and in the conventional use of the term, perhaps he wasn’t. But politics is about the power to define and control, the power to make and enforce the rules. And in this sense of challenging prevailing social norms, Bowie was, after all, the blithe rule-breaker extraordinaire. To paraphrase Brecht – art is a mirror and a hammer, and Bowie deftly wielded it as each. Illusions and borders are first reflected, and then they are shattered.
There is the early and often touted Bowie deconstruction of the gender binary – a liberating expression of the self beyond the confines of rigid social expectations regarding gender and sexuality. And not just a rejection of the norms, but a wild celebration so far beyond the typical sex drugs and rock n’ roll, a centering of those who dared to live outside the narrowly drawn frame. “Suffragette City”. “All the Young Dudes”. “The Jean Genie”. “Boys Keep Swinging”. “Rebel Rebel”.
“How Could They Know?? Hot Tramp! I love you so!”
And there is so much more. Bowie’s long running political commentary on America captures both the promise and the perils of The Dream. The decadence as seen through the eyes of Aladdin Sane. The upbeat excitement but eventual dead end of “Young Americans” and “Drive-in Saturday”. The indomitable soul in a sea of whiteness. The tyranny of “Fame” and “Fashion”. The tragedy – not just the triumph – of Major Tom. The love/hate of “One Shot”. The double standards and denial – “This is Not America”. The daily drudge and then, law-breaking defiance of “Day In/Day Out”. The revolutionary spark that smolders in the decay of “Panic in Detroit”.
“Looked a lot like Che Guevara, drove a Diesel van…”
Of course, Bowie extended his political analysis to the world. The East/West juxtaposition of “Karma Man”. The artificiality of Walls expressed in “Heroes”. The prophecy of the expanding surveillance state (“1984/dodo” and “We Are the Dead”). Political corruption and cronyism in “Sweet Thing/Candidate”. The dangers of The Thin White Duke and The Man Who Sold the World. The drone of “DJ”. The predicted death of the planet in “Five Years” (start counting right now). The under-belly of Empire hidden in the glistening love story of the Bowie video but revealed, in Iggy’s rendition of “China Girl”.
“I’ll give you television, I’ll give you eyes of blue, I’ll give you men who want to rule the world.”
But whatever flaws the mirror revealed to him and in turn, us, Bowie’s was not a politics of despair. Even the stark recognition of “Ashes to Ashes” and “Always Crashing in the Same Car”, even the dark dystopian futures of Ziggy and Diamond Dogs, are shot-through with a strange glimmer of hope. The conviction that once we had seen it, then yes! we could change it, that the mirror that reflected could surely be smashed.
And a song could show us the way.
Last Friday, on David Bowie’s birthday, I posted a video to mark the day. My selection was reflexive and then somewhat surprised me, as it was a song I hadn’t thought about in some time. But I see now that it was at the essence: “Rock n’ Roll Suicide”, the last song on the Ziggy Stardust LP, the last song performed in D.A. Pennebaker’s film, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. 1973 at London’s Hammersmith Odeon Theater.
Bowie is so forever young here and impossibly, beautifully androgynous. Singular, unearthly, seemingly an alien among us. But despite the doom implied in the title and the exceptional, unattainable singer, the message is not of distance between artist and audience, not of isolation, but expansive inclusion. Not of defeat, but of liberation – yes love – as we are carried away in the great generous ascendant (wonderful!) secularized swirl of Handel’s Messiah Chorus.
The central core who of the many changing faces of David Bowie Is right here — this is the thread that carries through until the very end. It is here in this song for all the margin-riders and rank outsiders, for all the ruler-breakers, outcasts and loners, for all the seekers.
It is his song for himself; it is his song for us.
“You aren’t alone.” After All.
” Gimme Your Hands Cause You’re Wonderful!”