David Bowie morphed from character to character, challenging every norm along the way. In his most iconic stage persona, as Ziggy Stardust, he stated that he wanted “to tart rock up.” Aladdin Sane was his next, often remembered for his lightning bolt portrait on the album cover. He courageously defied all gender binaries in his hyper-sexual and androgynous style in the early 1970s. But Bowie’s next alter-ego, the Thin White Duke, was not all sunshine and rainbows, or rather, lightning bolts. First appearing in his album cover, Station to Station, in 1976, he was a shell of Bowie. A cocaine-fueled controversial character who lived off of milk and peppers; so unbalanced that he kept his urine in the fridge so that “no other wizard could use it to enchant him,” he was certainly unconventional.
Instead of the iconic provocative imagery of his previous characters, he described the Duke as “a very Aryan, fascist type.” Dressed in black and white, bleached blonde hair and gaunt-looking, it was a sad sight. This time, rebellion for Bowie meant opposing democracy. Hitler and fascism were his newest passions. Rock Against Racism, a political and cultural movement, was an alliance of dub-reggae and post-punk music. Formed partially in response to his comments, Bowie was excluded from this musical revolution. It had markedly different values from him at the time, as he attested that Hitler was the “one of the first rock stars”. He went from associating rock with ‘tartiness’ to equating stardom with Hitler’s leadership.
After moving to Berlin to escape the hedonistic lifestyle, which he had lived under the guise of the Duke, he then changed again. This transformation was marked in his Berlin Trilogy of albums in the late 1970s. Raf Simons, the designer, attests Bowie’s ability to change character was inspirational, explaining he was “a chameleon, able to reinvent himself.” Bowie, as embodied in his various personas, was someone who escaped all binaries. But at what cost? These characters gave him freedom. Freedom of gender expression, yet also the freedom of a scapegoat. His comments surrounding fascism have been largely disregarded, attributed as the Thin White Duke speaking. For all his style and self-expression has done for the LGBTQ+ community today, his Nazi leanings were used by the National Front as celebrity endorsement of their beliefs. Yes, substance abuse may explain, but it cannot excuse his inflammatory comments.
It seems with Bowie it’s not just a case of separating the art from the artist but separating each of his characters from one another. We have a lot to thank for Bowie, but perhaps his reputation as a ‘rebel’ is more complicated than often acknowledged.
By Isabella Brown