Since the death of David Bowie on January 10, tributes have been flying in from all directions, taking numerous different angles and detailing different aspects of his career and personality. Bowie’s diversity is quite astonishing: his many alter-egos, ranging from the bizarre androgynous glamour of Ziggy Stardust to the unnerving Fascist leanings of the Thin White Duke, encompass a wide range of contemporary themes and issues. Ziggy, for instance, has become one of the biggest British gay and trans icons of all time, and both the Thin White Duke and Major Tom can be linked to Bowie’s drug abuse and unstable mental health. By using his music and these personas, Bowie was able to draw attention to these kind of issues and force people to start looking them in the eye. In a time and society where, in his own words, there were only “known truths, and known lies, and no kind of duplicity or pluralism about the things that we believed in”, Bowie was constantly challenging social norms and rejecting convention. Even after his death, he is still providing inspiration for thousands of people to push boundaries and question the rules.
When Ziggy Stardust first emerged in the early 70s, homosexuality had only been legalised for a few years, and the term ‘transgender’ had only just been coined. Ziggy’s androgynous and frankly strange appearance made him an instantly controversial figure; his actions on one particular occasion, his appearance on Top of the Pops in 1972, cemented his reputation as a revolutionary performer. Described by one biographer as “the four minutes that forever shook the world”, Bowie (as Ziggy Stardust) slung a catsuit-clad arm around his guitarist Mark Ronson’s shoulders as they shared a microphone, watched by 14 million people. Back then, a gesture such as this would be extraordinary, making him ‘a dangerous figure on TV at a point when television didn’t do danger’. Bowie having come out as gay the same year, Ziggy became an idol for homosexuals who until five years previously had been outlawed from society.
However, Bowie seemingly never intended to be a gay icon, and was not keen on embracing the possibility. Later on in 1976, he claimed to be bisexual, but declared in 1983 that this claim was “the biggest mistake I ever made” and described himself as “a closet heterosexual”. Most tellingly of all, in 2002 Bowie told Blender magazine: “I had no inclination to hold any banners nor be a representative of any group of people”. However, the fact that it may have all just been an act does not seem to have affected Bowie’s status as a symbol for gay pride: thousands of tributes from the LGBT community have made it very clear he is still as important a figure as ever for many. Meanwhile, with an increasing awareness of the transgender scene – Caitlyn Jenner’s front page spread in Vanity Fair, for instance, and the intriguing transgender-focused film The Danish Girl currently in cinemas – the androgynous Ziggy Stardust stands as a significant figure for transgender men and women, too.
Considering Bowie’s many experiences with mental illness, it is surprising that so little has been said on the matter. His family history was, sadly, rife with mental disorder: his half-brother Terry was institutionalised for paranoid schizophrenia and eventually committed suicide in 1985; three of his aunts were reportedly diagnosed with the same or similar disorders. Bowie frequently expressed fears for his own mental health in interviews, professing his belief that his work helped to “channel that madness into music”. Natasha Devon, mental health champion of the Department for Education, strongly supports this statement in her obituary for Bowie. Referring to how his music helped her fight her depression when she was younger, Devon suggests that more time, funding and recognition should be awarded to the arts as a “preventative measure” against mental illness – “a way to express complex emotions which might otherwise manifest in more destructive ways”. There is little doubt that mental health is a cause for concern: an NUS survey in December found that 78 per cent of students participating in the study experienced mental health issues in the last year, and 33 per cent claimed they had had suicidal thoughts. “I hope that Bowie’s legacy will be that we allow children to express themselves artistically”, Devon writes, “so that we can save them from becoming victims of the current mental health crisis”.
Bowie’s music was undoubtedly heavily influenced by his experiences of mental illness. Aladdin Sane, another of his alter egos and a smart play on words, was inspired by his schizophrenic brother; the original sleeve of Bowie’s third album The Man Who Sold The World had an illustration of Cane Hill psychiatric hospital where Terry was a patient. The second track from the album, ‘All the Madmen’, alludes to the treatment and condition of mental health patients, and was discussed in an article for the British Medical Journal in 2010. One of the big problems we face today in society is the social stigma and shame which is still attached to mental illness, and Bowie addresses this within the song: “where can the horizon lie/ When a nation hides/ Its organic minds in a cellar”.
The Thin White Duke was created in 1976 to identify with Bowie’s album Station to Station. It was at this point that Bowie was at the peak of his cocaine habit, an addiction that was rapidly getting out of hand. He suffered delusions, psychosis and paranoia and embarked on some of his most controversial behaviour, in particular making pro-Fascist comments in interviews, supposedly as the thoroughly ‘nasty’ Duke. He was, in his own words, living on “red peppers, cocaine and milk” and eventually decided to relocate to Berlin to recuperate, where he recorded the ‘Berlin trilogy’ (Low, Heroes, and Lodger).
Major Tom, an earlier persona, can be associated with Bowie’s drug use; first appearing in ‘Space Oddity’, the character reappears in the semi-autobiographical ‘Ashes to Ashes’ as a “junkie” at an “all-time low”. In ‘Space Oddity’, Major Tom deliberately cuts off all communication with earth and drifts outwards to space, displaying some sense perhaps of loneliness, despair and detachment, all symptoms of depression. Bowie’s expression of his mental health in this manner is admirable at a time when the social stigma attached to mental illness would have been considerable.
David Bowie’s multiple alter-egos are possibly one of the most interesting forms of artistic expression to emerge from the 70s. He has become an icon both for the LGBT community and those with mental illness; a reassurance for everyone ‘that it’s ok to be different’. Above all, Bowie proves to be a constant reminder to keep pushing boundaries and challenge social norms.