David Bowie and The Controversy Behind Mourning Morally Questionable Artists
CONTENT WARNING: THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE PROVIDES DETAILS OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT AND ASSAULT. PLEASE READ AT YOUR OWN DISCRETION.
by Erin Christie
There are certain people who appear celestial as if their existence is as old and persistent as time itself. To me, David Bowie was one of those people. It was as if he was always present in my life, whether in terms of growing up listening to his greatest hits with my mother as we drove down I-95, seeing “Heroes” (1977) being reveled in by the characters of one of my then-favorite books, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) (which I believed I was incredibly edgy and cool for enjoying, I may add), or spending countless nights listening to his mellower tracks—notably, “Letter to Hermione” (1969)—and contemplating my existence in this world. Reminiscent of one of his more recognizable and popular tracks, Bowie himself was a man of the galaxy—a “Starman”—and to many, myself included, it appeared as though his presence in our world would never fade. And then, he died.
When I heard the news, I remember thinking it was another massive Twitter prank and that someone was attempting to start a massive panic. I was hurt for a long time, knowing that he wasn’t out there, existing, in the same timeline as I am anymore. Maybe Earth simply didn’t deserve him. I’d like to think that he’s up somewhere in the cosmos, reclining with a smile at the thought that he impacted so many people in such a positive and valuable way.
“He changed the look, sound, style, even sexual identity of rock’n’roll,” noted Dorian Lynskey of Billboard. And it’s absolutely true. His standpoint as an artist was something that was completely his: he wasn’t afraid to push the envelope and step out of the box. People gravitated to him because of his ferocious audacity to be different, to reinvent the conventions set in front of him.
Most impactful to many, including myself was his courage to embrace his fluid sexuality and gender openly. In the 70s, being gay was still considered worse than murder in some aspects. Still, he refused to back down and hide that part of his identity. He, too, was a “master of disguise,” unafraid to wear dresses onstage and sport his ambiguous style with grace. In the spring of ’72, his alternate persona, Ziggy Stardust, broke barriers and secured his place in the limelight. His audacity to be queer and to do so unapologetically helped pave the way for a culture that was to eventually become more accepting of all intersections of people. He created a safe space for queer listeners and opened the door for a more inclusive, visually and artistically innovative platform for music.
Despite how important he was to me and continues to be in terms of his massive cultural and musical impact, David Bowie was far from a perfect person—more often than not, our heroes never are.
Shortly after he died, a new discourse began to arise, not one that discussed his legacy or spoke fondly of him, but one that startled me. “I lost my virginity to David Bowie,” Thrillist blared across my computer screen and my jaw practically unhinged upon reading it. In the article, as spoken to Michael Kaplan, detailed Lori Mattix’s disturbing encounter with Bowie, something that she had been forced to conceal.
Aside from the thrills of being among the musical icons from the past centennial, Bowie lived a wild life, but that’s not unlike so many rock stars from our time. We’ve been spoon-fed images of drugs, sex, and rock’n’roll, but never the ugly parts of that, the parts that no one wants us to talk about. For Bowie, alongside the rest of the elite, he would engage in popping pills and fraternizing with women, men, and sometimes, pubescent so-called “baby groupies.” Lori Mattix was only fifteen and among the “most desired” of the bunch, her lifestyle (as well as Sable Starr’s, another of the group’s) escapades being an inspiration for Kate Hudson’s character in the film, Almost Famous (2000). She, a young, impressionable, and naïve girl had been enamored by him, and he- as well as other huge stars such as Jimmy Page and Mick Jagger -used that to their advantage. Despite her claims that everything was consensual and that she “didn’t think of [herself] as underage,” their affair still speaks largely of Bowie’s personal character. Lori was underage, and the power dynamic there is completely palpable: he was a rock star with money, power, experience, and had a way with words while she completely fell limp under his gaze.
In a lot of ways, he probably believed he was untouchable, and with that in mind, he had a habit of getting into trouble. On October 9th, 1987, it a 30-year-old woman claimed that Bowie had assaulted her at the Mansion Hotel after a concert that night. On November 19th, 1987, the Spokane Chronicle printed news that those rape charges had been cleared by a Dallas Grand Jury, but that doesn’t mean that nothing happened and that he is clear of a guilty conscience.
Humans are not infallible, and even if Bowie made it very clear that he is far from an “Earthling,” that doesn’t mean that he was perfect. This fact, though, doesn’t mean that it’s okay to completely dismiss the allegations made against him, even if he’s gone. Recently, another writer for WECB, Mica Kendall, commented on the artist to fan relationship, and how there is a power hierarchy at play there, one that is easily manipulated. When the news is broken to us that someone we admire and whose work we appreciate is capable of such darkness, denial seems to be the first step, and to some, sweeping it under the rug to continue listening and appreciating without guilt is the next.
This brings about the complex situation wherein one battles internally with the thought of mourning someone accused of sexual assault or any other atrocity. We’re taught to be open to forgiveness, to understand that in most cases, people deserve second chances after they’ve done something wrong. This is especially relevant if the person in question, someone we care about and might even adore, has died. But, where does the line between being an apologist, and being valid get drawn?
Even when I look at pictures of him or hear his voice, I still sometimes feel a smile begin to form at the corners of my lips, and I retreat in disgust. To some, my hesitance to continue to support Bowie, despite his significance in my life, might be unnecessary or “extra.” But, to me, it would be wrong and incredibly selfish to put my own personal feelings and memories associated with his music over the value of the wrongdoings he, as a person, committed.
We’re drawn to want to “separate the art from the artist” so that we can remember lovingly the positive things he did for our world. But, in doing this, that indirectly invalidate our criticism of the artist’s actions. After all, even if the art is an entity of its own, it wouldn’t have become reality without the mind of the person behind it.
In a more current context, the same concept can be applied to rapper XXXtentacion’s untimely death. The young rapper was far from a good person, to state it in layman’s terms, and with that said, I won’t dignify his “legacy” (a string of abuse allegations alongside an attempted murder charge, of his then-pregnant girlfriend no less) with a sentence or two. Though the scale of evil on which Bowie and X lay is very vastly separate, the concept of grappling with the support of someone who wasn’t exactly the best after death is still present in both circumstances. For fans of X, his death was a shot to the heart, and even so, their willingness to mourn him—a truly awful human being—for the sake of remembering his art seemed foul.
In life or death, as fans, our support of artists of any kind of platform has a moral boundary: we should remain aware and critical of whoever we support so as to not blindly encourage our “faves’” indiscretions. With that said, even in the cases of Bowie, where his impact is blatant, one cannot turn a blind eye to what he did/didn’t do in his personal life. Is it okay to dismiss the terrible actions these artists engaged in while they were alive and creating the content we care about simultaneously now that they’re gone? Simply put, it’s complicated.
Despite the blurred lines, one thing is absolutely clear, as stated by Luke O’Neil for Esquire, “a terrible person can be responsible for transcendent art” and we cannot “let death wash away that uncomfortable contradiction.” In the case of Bowie, it’s justifiable that he’s been held on a pedestal: an untouchable throne built due to his years of active queer representation, activism, other-worldly artistic works, and so much more. But even with that in mind, it’s important that we see people, including our “Heroes” (1977), as they are and as they were. He was wonderful and awe-inspiring, but he also freely manipulated his power and hurt people in the process, and that’s something we mustn’t push onto the backburner.