“Oh God, I could do better than that!”
As Queen Bitch’s insistent, irresistible guitar riff kicks off yet another major motion-picture trailer, is this how the reclusive David Bowie feels?
The 1971 song, from David Bowie’s Hunky Dory (and featuring Mick Ronson on guitar), was the sexy, energetic centre of the 2008 film Milk and now underscores the trailer for Young Adult, starring Charlize Theron as a “psychotic prom-queen bitch,” trying to recapture her small-town glory days.
As with Milk, the song makes the trailer bounce. It isn’t just the quirky brilliance of the music, either.
It’s the singer, whose strange, scale-sliding voice starts the song by counting off, then launching his legendary Velvet Underground-inspired, yet wholly original, tribute to an everyday superstar, an imperious queen who is “known in the darkest clubs for pushing ahead of the dames.”
Bowie, the epicene trickster, enticed us all with such slippery lyrics – lyrics that said “queen” and did not mean a regent, that referenced “twinks” and, à la Wilde’s Bosie, “a love I could not obey” – as well as an always-changing stage persona that reflected the sexual liberty of the 1970s.
That liberty was extended to all artists, Bowie’s influence too vast to name.
Consider just one instance: Nirvana covering The Man Who Sold the World on Unplugged in 1993. Bowie was hated by the homophobic punks who came before Kurt Cobain, so his cover surprised fans at the time. But it shouldn’t have: If Cobain was nothing else, he was a devout musicologist, who, incidentally, loved what was once referred to, by aghast commentators, as “gender bending” – Bowie’s claim to fame in mass culture.
Bowie’s look passed out of fashion. But his music has long been waiting in the wings.
As has the artist, it would seem. Since his heart attack in 2004, which occurred while he was on tour, the 64-year-old singer has stopped performing and recording and rarely makes public appearances – his last studio album, Reality, appeared in 2003, then disappeared, quickly, from sight. Recently, however, he approved a tribute concert featuring his work, called Heroes: The Musical.
And a few years ago, Bowie was also executive producer on Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, a documentary about his great idol. Walker’s taking part in the film was a huge coup, as the man whom Julian Cope called the “Godlike genius” is, barring this instance, never photographed or interviewed.
More important, though, is that Bowie speaks of Walker’s great influence on his work in the movie, which is extraordinary. Artists do not only hide their influences, poet Anne Sexton once told an interviewer, “We bury them!”
Consider two different magazine covers this month.
There is French Vogue, with Kate Moss made-up and orange-mulleted into the Starman (a redux of her 2003 British Vogue cover, which featured another Bowie morph).
And there is Vanity Fair, with Lady Gaga on the cover, looking like a hybrid of David (and Angie) Bowie. He is never named in the piece, but many others are: Producer Vincent Herbert says of meeting the young star, “I knew immediately that she’d be our new superstar, our new Michael Jackson.”
But that’s not quite right, is it?
More accurately, Lady Gaga is our new David Bowie – if Bowie could have broken down still more walls around how gender and sex are perceived and received.
In the Vanity Fair piece, Lady Gaga takes a besotted, skeptical reporter to meet her real friends (civilians, that is), including her mentor, the DJ and dancer Lady Starlight.
Here is a good time, one wants to shout into the slick pages, to mention Bowie! Do the Ziggy and Lady Stardust math!
No, instead we learn about Lady Starlight’s moves. Lady Gaga says, “There was something ... off about it, something awkward and uncomfortable. But she was so unapologetic and interesting.”
She may well be, but both of these women owe their moves to Bowie. He too was way off when he appeared in gigantic stadiums in makeup and high heels, unflinchingly singing his songs “of darkness and disgrace.”
“We can be heroes,” the genderless hybrid superstar sang – secretly, one felt, to the downtrodden, the freaks, the closeted boys and girls, ultimately to a bigger and more beautiful congregation than the KISS Army.
Somewhere along the line, though, people stopped listening. The disco-era was Bowie’s last shining time and he was, subsequently, mangled in the all-too-virile 1980s, when rock stars still wore makeup and heels, but they did it the way A Clockwork Orange's Alex wore false eyelashes, cultivating physiques and personae that read as violent parodies.
I remember seeing a tiny, fractious Truman Capote on Dick Cavett years ago, mewling about being treated badly in North America; about how Europeans treat their artists far better.
An amused Cavett asked what he expected.
I would expect a little gratitude, Capote said quietly.
We do treat our great artists badly. Should we wait until Bowie dies to love and thank him?
Or should we take note that his music is creeping back into pop, propelled by its own astonishing volition, and hope that the artist follows suit?
To David Bowie: For singing like a god yourself, about a world I could not yet imagine, I am grateful.
“Oh God, I could do better than that!”