World In View: David Bowie’s legacy

From the January-February 2016 issue of News & Letters

David Bowie’s early 1970s music and performances, including his announcement of his “Gay” sexuality, were unprecedented for his injection of social enlightenment into the lives of working-class youth. It was an indication that our culture could reflect our deepest selves—the selves previous culture, schools, work, church, and even the Left served to deny and vilify.

This salutary influence continues to this day. It made Bowie a hero, but it made him a celebrity, too, with all the coke and cocooning that come with that. In the mid-1970s, losing faith in social change, he began to fantasize about a coming fascism. Those who continued to take the liberatory ideas in Bowie’s work seriously were first to mercilessly criticize this turn.

Fascism was only too real. A threat growing in our neighborhoods, among our peers, it represented an intensification of the social prejudices we had fought to throw off. Rock Against Racism, for one, grew directly from this close-quarters confrontation.

To his great credit, Bowie got the message and reorganized his thinking. What remained most profound in his art was its democratic impulse, a recognition of common humanity, and the desire for freedom. That “we can be heroes” in the shadow of all Berlin walls.

Bowie went on to produce worthy art, to attack racism in the music industry, and to release an excellent new album, Blackstar, two days before he died.

—Gerry Emmett

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