Content Note : Mentions rape/child exploitation.
Anyone who has an English Lit degree will be familiar with Barthes 1967 essay, the Death of the Author. It’s a foundational text arguing for the removal of the intentions and biographical detail of the author from any work of art.
The death of Bowie – twitter outpourings of grief, my own reaction, and some uncomfortable truths about his life reminded me of this essay. It reminded me of this struggle . When it comes to our pop heroes we do tend to connect biographical details, but generally only when they are convenient to the particular narrative we wish construct.
Because Bowie, well he committed child rape. I have to admit, this wasn’t a fact I knew till today, but now I do. The fact that he made brilliant music doesn’t change this uncomfortable truth.
It’s quite easy to point facts like this out when you have no emotional connection to the art of the perpetrator.
It becomes much more difficult when a persons art and music has played a role within your own life story. A brief glance through twitter today shows how much Bowie’s music, style and even his presentation of gender and sexuality have meant to people. There is a real personal level to the grief people seem to be feeling at the death of this particular author.
I get that. Velvet Goldmine remains one of my favourite films, and this version of Life on Mars made me cry this morning. Skinny queer men who play with gender norms and have high cheekbones, well they tend to be my favourite kind of men.
David Bowie committed rape.
This is a reminder that violence against women can still be committed by people we like, people we admire, people who make great art. As a society we really struggle with this, as individuals we struggle with this. It is one of the hardest aspects of violence (particularly gender based violence) that we wrestle with.
Part of Barthes Death of the Author is the argument that art is experienced subjectively. The value of a work lies in what we bring to it. There is a great value to what we bring to Bowie ourselves. I am enjoying hearing what people brought to Bowie today through twitter and radio 6. Particularly what his work has meant to outsiders. Hearing what Bowie meant for queer young people in particular is wonderful.
But in the 1970s he used his power, his position and social tolerance of violence against women to do something unacceptable.
I am perhaps contradicting Barthes by bringing this up – but this biographical detail is important for my own subjective appreciation of his art. I think it’s important to remember that great men can do shit things, people we love can do things that we hate. Life is complicated.
Confronting this is vital, and I think it’s possible to do this whilst still listening to Spiders from Mars. Or at least I hope so.
I am reminded of Heavenly Nobodies a great song by 90s indie shoe-gazers Lush. The lyrics might be somewhat simplistic, but nonetheless apt.
RIP Bowie, but more so – let’s bury a culture which permits child exploitation in the name of rock’n roll.