The house that Bowie built

In Jim Henson’s 1986 film Labyrinth, David Bowie stands out as Jareth, a very beautiful goblin king. He’s so gorgeous that when I watched the movie as a kid, it took me a while to realize he wasn’t a woman. When I finally did, he redefined my entire concept of gender, as I understood flowing blond hair and glittering eye shadow as strictly feminine. I didn’t know that these constructs could be broken down and that, by presenting himself in this way, someone like David Bowie could take back the authority on gender identity. Many artists in the generations following his music videos and movies had a similar revelation and have let this freedom inform and empower their own performances.

The exploration and debunking of gender is something that characterizes Bowie’s career. In 1972, he reinvented himself as Ziggy Stardust, an alien who refused to conform to earthly social constructs of gender and sexuality. In 1979, he released the music video for “Boys Keep Swinging,” in which, after performing in a clean-cut suit, he walks down a runway in drag, dramatically smearing lipstick across his face. Every album cover from his early career is a portrait that subverts gender, whether he lounges comfortably in a dress on The Man Who Sold the World or strikes the glamorous pose of a vintage movie star on the front of Hunky Dory

As an artist and performer, he had many regenerations, and he depicted each new version of himself with varying androgyny. He could draw a glittering lightning bolt across his face one day and don a plain suit the next. These changes in Bowie’s image mirror a message about gender in his work—it is in constant flux, potentially changing from one moment to the next. This message came at a far less liberal time: when the contemporary gay rights movement was only just beginning and when any discussion of sexuality was still highly taboo.

Bowie certainly didn’t invent or pioneer gender-bending performance art, and his work should not overshadow the likes of drag performer Ethyl Eichelberger or all-female band Fanny. His role in LGBTQ art is also tempered by the controversy surrounding his own sexuality; he initially claimed he was bisexual before coming out as a “closet heterosexual” later in his career. But he did thrust queer themes into the media, demanding more mainstream acceptance for work that exists outside of the binary. In both the short and long term, he carved out a space for LGBTQ artists. Across generations and genres, from disco to punk to classic rock, Bowie changed the rules for performance and style—or, rather, he completely eliminated them.

In the immediate wake of his success, he cleared the way for someone like Grace Jones, a disco star whose unmistakable, androgynous image was the inspiration of many contemporary pop stars like Janelle Monae and Lorde. Other artists of the 1970s and 1980s, like Queen, shared Bowie’s exuberant style and queer identity and rose to success alongside him.

In the current independent music scene, there are many artists thriving in the space Bowie helped create. Many take his message further, demanding even more recognition for genderfluid music. In the punk duo PWR BTTM, Ben Hopkins and Liv Bruce revel in their genderqueer appearance and, because of their enthusiasm for lipstick and glitter, are often likened to Bowie. Their songs further explore gender identity and sexuality, often switching out expected pronouns in their lyrics. After Bowie’s death, the duo tweeted their admiration for his work, though they acknowledged the many artists of his era whose work was erased. 

Synthpop artist Mike Hadreas, known as his stage name Perfume Genius, also openly evokes the musical and performance styles of Bowie. On stage, Hadreas often pairs suits with deep red lipstick, and his tendency for onstage hip swiveling is certainly reminiscent of Bowie. Through his lyrics and musicality, Hadreas discusses his own sexuality and what it means in reference to society. His song “Queen” is evocative of Bowie’s “Queen Bitch,” setting out to explore LGBTQ themes. Embracing musical performance as the platform, these artists continue down a path where Bowie made the first steps, further knocking down barriers of gender and sexuality. 

While David Bowie is an imperfect icon, the deliberate ambiguity present in his work, fashion, and performance makes him an important figure in music history. Despite all the theorizing and mythologizing, his sexuality and gender was revolutionary in its refusal to be pinned down. In something as simple as not knowing whether Jareth was a male or female goblin ruler, Bowie forces his audience to question the very definition of these things. Bowie didn’t need to subscribe to being male or female, straight or gay, and this powerful notion permeated much of his work. In his wake, it will continue to validate the art of a newer and even more progressive generation of musicians.