AJ McKenna writes about the complicated relationship we have with our heroes. This post originally appeared on AJ’s blog, Wrestling Emily Dickinson.
With the news Monday that he died at the age of 69, it’s a difficult day to be a David Bowie fan. Like many of us, I grew up in a world where Bowie was just always there. He was like the weather: sometimes he’d be cheerful, sometimes he’d be moody, sometimes he’d be absolutely horrific (that cover of “God Only Knows” on Tonight, Jesus Christ…) but his actual existence was a constant.
It was a constant for me since I was old enough to talk. I’m heterochromic – my eyes are two different colours – and long before I ever heard any of Bowie’s music, long before I listened to one of his albums (for the record: Outside was my first), one of the first things adults would say to me when they noticed was “Oh, you know who else has different coloured eyes?”
Except, of course, as any Bowie fan knows, he doesn’t. Bowie suffered a head injury as a young man which left him with one pupil larger than the other, which makes it look like he has different coloured eyes, but he doesn’t.
I’m still adjusting to writing about him in the past tense.
But my grief, as a fan, as a queer person hugely influenced by Bowie, isn’t the only thing which makes today difficult. It’s become a cliché to say that all our faves are problematic, but the thing that complicates my grief for Bowie is the fact that, back in the 1970s, at the height of his fame, Bowie has sex with a thirteen year old girl.
That girl was Lori Mattix, a groupie who, before more famously becoming involved with Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, lost her virginity to Bowie. It’s clear from interviews with Mattix that she doesn’t regard this as rape or assault, and considers herself to have consented to Bowie doing his thing with her, but it still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, and it’s a fact which many people, quite rightly, find distasteful. And we should. Older men having sex with teenage girls is abusive and exploitative because of the power dynamic involved. A thirteen-year-old can’t really give their informed consent to something like that, and people should know better than to exploit a young girl’s hero-worship just to get their jollies. It’s hard to think of a contemporary artist with the same stature as Bowie, but if any celebrity were discovered to have been doing that there would, rightly, be an outcry.
That’s because the mechanism exists, today, to hold celebrities accountable. Right-wingers might decry tumblr activism, but social networking and the ubiquity of mobile recording devices has fundamentally shifted the balance of power between stars and fans. When we say that there will never again be a star like Bowie, this is part of what we mean.
Bowie, and Page, and all the other rock stars of that era, rose to fame at a very different time. Rape culture saturates our world even now, and the rock culture of the 70s was rotten with it. Young men like Bowie and Page were treated like God-Emperors, decadent overlords who could do what they wanted with whom they wanted, and who were protected by an entire apparatus of managers, minders and money-men who could make all their problems go away. A million eyes looked on them with lust and wonder, they were told they could take what they liked, and they did. And many, many young people, especially young women, were hurt as a result.
As a survivor of rape and sexual assault myself, it’s hard for me to listen to Bowie’s music knowing what he did. I still do, because years before I found out, those songs gave me the strength as a queer person to stand out, to be who I needed to be. I still listen to them because they’re an amazing example of what happens when an artistic mind with a pop sensibility is given full creative freedom. I just wish Bowie, and the stars of his era, hadn’t been given so much freedom in the areas where they should have been restrained.
Bowie’s entire career constituted a critique of rock and roll, of fame, of stardom, and – as distasteful as an argument is at a funeral – maybe it’s appropriate, in that sense, that we are having this conversation today. Bowie was a superstar who seemed to be something more than human, something alien, something divine, and he played with that perception of himself as a messianic figure for much of his career, in public – and took advantage of it backstage. When you treat men like gods, when you give them carte blanche with no oversight, and no accountability, you enable their abuse of power. There will never be a star with Bowie’s level of fame again, and we should be thankful such a thing’s no longer possible. The final lesson we can take from David Bowie is that never again should we treat a star like David Bowie.
AJ McKenna is the author of the poetry pamphlets A Lady of a Certain Rage and names and songs of women, and the album …the gunshots which kill us are silenced. Her poetry film Letter to a Minnesota Prison was screened at the South Bank Centre in 2012, and she performed her spoken word show, Howl of the Bantee, at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015. AJ previously served as So So Gay‘s Deputy Editor. She is about to embark on the Apples & Snakes tour, Public Address III, which is being directed by Hanna Silva. She lives in Newcastle with two cats and two lesbians.