Dealing with the Problematic and Distasteful Histories of Revered Rock Stars

Let’s be clear: David Bowie did some awful, distasteful things in his career, especially back in the 1970s. How can we reconcile that with our admiration for his work. Here’s an excellent article when encountering the problematic histories of famous people like Bowie.

My feelings about the past week of grieving celebrities and bickering with fellow social-justice-warrior-y types about how to grieve over celebrities were summed up pretty well by a tweet from one of my Twitter friends: “A quick Google and a thorough check of Your Fave Is Problematic indicate that it’s safe to publicly mournAlan Rickman.”

Of course I’m glad Alan Rickman was, as well as an amazing actor, by all accounts a pretty amazing human being. There’s nothing wrong with being a fan both of an artist’s work and of an artist as a person, the causes they support and the impact they have on the people around them. Likewise, I absolutely agree that while “speaking ill of the dead” should be kept to a minimum, that when a famous person has a checkered legacy it’s important not to sweep their misdeeds under the rug when they die–to do so is disrespectful to the people they’ve wronged and has been a favorite tool of those who use grief to manipulate our understanding of history.

But treating a legacy as something to be weighed on a binary scale–as though you have to add up all of a person’s sins and, if they surpass a certain threshold, they’reinstantly moved from the category of “hero” to “villain”–doesn’t help anybody.

Take David Bowie. Although I didn’t connect to his music the way many of my peers did, it’s impossible to listen to his music and not hear his genius. And it wasn’t just his talent people fell in love with, but what he stood for–that his public image and his music carved out a space for queer sexuality and unconventional performance of gender, that his bold, no-shits-given stage presence, his absolute unshakeable confidence and comfort in whatever bizarre identity he was wearing at the time gave other people the courage to feel comfortable in their own skin.

And then there’s the fact that one of those personae was a committed Nazi who collected Nazi paraphernalia and praised Hitler. And then there’s the fact that, whatever persona he was in, he fucked a lot of groupies when he was a younger man, including underage groupies, including a girl named Lori Mattix at the age of 15.

The thing that makes both of these stories uncomfortable is that they’re not really “sins” or “gaffes” or “peccadilloes” that stand at odds with the rest of the narrative of Bowie’s life. They’re entirely consonant with what people loved about him, or at least people at the time thought they were. The same caution-to-the-wind total commitment to becoming an outré boundary-crossing character–the same utter defiance of social convention–that created Ziggy Stardust created the Thin White Duke.

Keep reading.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

One thought on “Dealing with the Problematic and Distasteful Histories of Revered Rock Stars

  • January 21, 2016 at 3:31 pm
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    There are a number of strange, and even illegal stories regarding rockers. Gary glitter, yes very bad not nice etc, but what about Jerry lee Lewis, with the relationship with his 14 year old cousin, no one in the US seemed to mind that much, although the Brits did! Elvis and his young gf, Jerry Seinfeld hooking up and then marrying a 17 yr old Celine Dione with Rene Angelou still creepy, they kept it under wraps until she was legal

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