Bowie: One Year Later

My first Bowie memory is of listening to ‘Life on Mars?’ which, as I wrote previously, “exploded from the cheap, tinny speakers in technicolour”. In retrospect it feels like a moment when life itself burst into technicolour, when the narrow confines of my perspective collapsed around me and I found myself alert to exciting, daunting possibilities. Listening to that song, I caught my first glimpses of Oz.

 

As an artist Bowie tore up my notions of what popular music could be. I will remember sitting in that room, being carried somewhere completely alien, for as long as I still have my faculties. I’ve come to understand that it wasn’t just the strange, wonderful music which grabbed me but also the aching alienation which pulses through ‘Life on Mars?’ I’m not sure I yet had a real understanding of sexuality but I knew I was different from most of the other kids. I knew I was lonely and I knew I wanted something more, even if I couldn’t begin to conceive of what that was. “Is there life on Mars?” spoke to that, a plaintive yet hopeful howl that there had to be something, somewhere else out there (…over the rainbow).

As with so many queers my age and older, Bowie spoke to something within me before I necessarily could even articulate what it was. He helped usher me through some very difficult years to a life I could never have imagined. I never dreamt that I would get to be/The creature that I always meant to be. The Oz I glimpsed in ‘Life on Mars?’ came roaring into view and it was magnificent, even that sense of alienation has never quite gone away; I’m not sure it ever does for people like us. Yet for that, there was always Bowie. Always Bowie.

When I woke on a dark, cold Monday in January to the news that Bowie had died, it felt for a few days as if the world had been plunged back into black and white. In what became a year of dismal shocks, his death remains the thing which most affected me. I cried a lot the day I found out. I cried in Berlin a couple of weeks later as I visited his old haunts.

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I wept at Bowie’s appearance in the Oscars ‘In Memorium’ video; at the Brit Awards tribute where his band was largely made up of the same people I saw him perform with in 2003; at the end of ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ which I watched repeatedly when I was drunk:

I ended the year welling up at Bowie’s music making an appearance on the soundtrack for the London fireworks. Yet as I find myself in another cold, miserable January, about to enter the anniversary of that bleak Monday, I find my sadness lifted by the knowledge that the world didn’t become black and white again. I made a whole new bunch of Bowie memories: in Berlin he soundtracked a memorable encounter with a Syrian couple; I laughed with a room full of people at a BFI Bug special devoted to him; I went to see Lazarus on a glorious November afternoon; I headed down to the South Bank Centre one Friday after work to see Paul Morley speak about him and hear a choir sing some of his songs; I felt a visceral thrill when he appeared on the screens at a Placebo gig in December.

He’s not gone. He never will be. I don’t think I will ever feel fully at ease in the world and David Bowie will always speak to that. He helped me to accept it, even to celebrate it at times. I will always miss him but as the sadness falls away with time what is left is the sheer joy he has brought me, and which I now know he will always bring me. The world is still technicolour. Oz is still within my grasp. And yes, there is life on Mars.

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Cars For All The Gays!

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I’ve written a lot in the past few years on how gay identity has been commodified as it has concomitantly become ‘respectable’ and divorced from the wider social justice movement which was once integral to it. As I wrote here:

With each progression of ‘the gays’ into a target market the concept has become more and more banal, more removed from the complicated taint of meaningful politics and messy humanity, more homogeneous and more offensive. We become a bunch of fabulous creatures who want nothing more than to be patronised. Patted on the head and told that we deserve to be treated like everyone else – not because of any crazy concepts like human rights, of course, but rather because gays are amazing and deserve good stuff. We’re now at the stage where any 2013 edition of ‘Marketing 101’ would have to feature an early section called ‘Patronise the gays’.

I’ve also written about how  “flattering the victimhood” of the “right kind” of queer (the white, cisgender, middle-class kind) has become its own industry. All of these strands come together in the quite staggering case of Ellen Degeneres and a company called ‘Shutterfly’ gifting $10,000 to two ‘Youtube star’ model twin brothers because they filmed a coming out video ‘for their dad’.

There is no aspect of this that doesn’t cause me to shake my head in disbelief despite myself. These two professional models apparently moved to LA to ‘try and make it’, which in itself already suggests they’re not exactly on the poverty line. Prior to their appearance on Ellen they had Instagram and Youtube accounts which were already very popular (by the usual standards of these things), no doubt due to their almost exclusive focus on the pretty faces of these two men rather than their profound thoughts. I find it difficult, then, to find their ‘coming out’ video as anything other than them attempting to commodify their sexuality in order to boost their profile. This isn’t particularly ‘out there’ for two guys who are already commodities in a myriad of ways but it speaks to that peculiarly 21st century blend of marketing, liberalism and ‘othering’ which typifies ‘The Gay Angle’. In this instance we have another element – confessional social media. It wasn’t enough for these men to tell their dad that they were gay – it had to be filmed, shared with millions of people and it had to be presented as an inspirational story. The packaging is so clichéd that I find it impossible to believe that the twins (or at least their management) weren’t aware of the increasing tendency for ‘coming out’ Youtube videos to go viral, just as any celebrity or public figure who comes out instantly becomes a heroic figure (as long as they’re easy to patronise and don’t make anyone uncomfortable). They’re the ‘right kind’ of queer making the right noises: these handsome professional models, living in LA and by their own account out to almost everyone in their lives are still victims. It’s tragic! Oh society, won’t someone think of the models in LA?!

Of course I can’t particularly berate these guys for doing what they can to get attention, especially when they clearly understand the cynical, dynamic power of ‘coming out’ (if packaged in the right way) far more than most of the media does. It was predictable that there would be a rush to congratulate them, to reward them, to confer ‘bravery’ upon them. It was somewhat less predictable that they’d be catapulted to The Ellen Show where they’d have money thrown at them by a stationery company. It’s almost a perfect storm of ‘gay as commodity’. The twins market themselves as appealing, brave gay victims. People rush to pat them on the head. Then talk shows and companies want in on the action, to be associated with this ‘model gay’ (pun intended).

On Twitter the user @PayItForward87 pointed out the absurdity of ‘helping’ the twins, contrasting their position with the rates of homeless LGBT youth and disproportionate rates of violence faced by queer people of colour and transgender people.

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It’s true, of course – that $10,000 could have made a real difference. Yet this neglects the fact that the Youtube video would never have gone viral, and the twins would never have ended up on Ellen, if it had included issues of race, poverty, homelessness and violence against transgender people. These issues are viewed as political. They’re viewed as messy, not least because they break down the neat distinctions between the ‘nice brave gay’ and the ‘nice tolerant liberal’ and instead implicate all of us. The twins feed into a homogenous conception of ‘gay identity’ which is stripped of all political content or context – indeed, they’re viewed in essentialist terms as being pre-political identities, almost new born babies in terms of their place in the world. We can be certain that if even these articulate middle-class white models had built their Youtube following by speaking about ‘radical’ politics, their coming out would not have reached far.

It’s incumbent on all of us, then, who do not wish to be packaged, patronised and apolitical to recognise this shit for what it is and to reject it. A vision of Oprah Winfrey shouting ‘You’re gay, YOU GET A CAR! You’re gay, YOU GET A CAR! CARS FOR ALL THE GAYS!’ doesn’t seem particularly outlandish right now. And while it might be nice to get a free car, that is a profound degradation of our humanity and a deeply counter-productive attitude which cements us, as queers, as people to be tolerated as long as we behave ourselves, allow ourselves to be patronised and act grateful for it. We are not marketing opportunities.

The ‘Respectable’ Queer

One of the things which previously inspired me to write on why I thought ‘gay art’ was at a dead end was seeing a ‘film’ by someone called Antonio Da Silva.  This consisted of 14 minutes of naked men speaking about themselves and wanking. The thoughts I articulated in that blog struck me again today when an article about Da Silva’s latest popped up on my Facebook. I must confess I haven’t watched the full 13 minutes but it seems to consist of naked men speaking about themselves and wanking. This may have passed me by without further comment but something caused me to pause:

“All my films have been self-funded, your donation will help me to continue producing films that aim to be artistic as well as sexually explicit. People who donate will be contacted to watch unreleased footage once it is ready. I am grateful for your contribution.”

This quote from Da Silva appears above a plea for donations and a series of gifs depicting the men in the film masturbating. The ‘appeal’ is pretty obvious (and it’s not the art) but the assertion that his films ‘aim to be artistic as well as sexually explicit’ reminded me of a series of adverts I’ve seen for this increasingly popular night in East London which describes itself as “a literary salon featuring unclothed men”. I was also reminded of the ‘Red Hot’ photography series which has been a perennial feature in the press, both queer and beyond, since it debuted. The statement on the Red Hot website that the series has raised thousands for anti-bullying charities then reminded me of the Warwick Rowers and Ben Cohen, both of whom have also monetised ‘classy’ sexual images with an added charity sheen.

There is clearly big money to be made in facilitating respectable wanks. I remain of the opinion that that vast majority of this stuff is terrible (and deeply cynical) yet with the very recent arrival of gay marriage in Scotland and today’s images of gay marriages in Florida, I started thinking about a wider context for this ‘art’ which I hadn’t previously considered. Gay marriage is the culmination of the rise and subsequent dominance of ‘respectability politics’ in the queer community, something I’ve written about many times before – it’s easy, then, to draw clear links between this and the rise of LGBT art as ‘porn-with-meaning’. I don’t use the word ‘porn’ pejoratively here but rather to muse that many of the above examples are risible attempts to intellectualise the very basic and very human urge to be aroused and to get laid, comparable to how respectability politics tries to downplay the ‘deviant’ aspects of queer identity (both sexual and political) and make it more ‘acceptable’ to a wider audience. In this way the decline of radicalism which has characterised queer politics over the past 30 years can be seen to have fed into our mainstream LGBT media, obsessed with facile bullshit and castrated schoolboy giggling over celebrity nudity, and aforementioned queer art. I wrote in my blog on newsworthy microaggressions that they “flatter the self-expression of those who control or have easy access to the media” – something which I think is of key importance here. The desire is not only to appear a certain way to others but to have that reflected back and so feel that way too – the drive to respectability is about self-love as much as anything else. Of course as a basic principle this is fine but when projected through the prism of an LGBT world which overwhelmingly reflects the interests of those of a certain class and certain colour (and certain gender to an extent) it becomes detached from any reflective political power and ends up as a brutal narcissism. As James Baldwin described the ‘gay world’ in the quote which ended that piece: “It’s a very hermetically sealed world with very unattractive features, including racism.”

We can see this even in some self-conscious attempts to remember and/or reclaim the radicalism of the past. Depictions of the struggle against HIV are enormously whitewashed and even much modern activism fails to reflect or even acknowledge that worldwide incidences of the disease are overwhelmingly and disproportionately found in Sub-Saharan Africa (almost 70% of cases vs less than 7% in Western Europe/North America). Even the film Pride, which movingly depicts the solidarity displayed between LGSM and the striking miners in 1984/5, contains pretty much zero people of colour and while it depicts gay men in fetish gear (for example) it manages to completely desexualise them.

The depiction of class in Pride is also interesting. The miners’ strike is only ostensibly the heart of the film – really it’s a liberal message of tolerance and mutual respect. The collapse of the strike may have destroyed communities for decades to come but the film’s emotional climax is the arrival and support of the miners at Gay Pride in London. The closing captions tell us that the National Union of Miners were then instrumental in making the Labour Party adopt a gay rights platform – the film concludes with the working-class defeated but having helped to bestow respectability upon the queers.

It’s easy, then, to see how the current LGBT media, as brain-dead as it is, could applaud the film and bypass any issues it raises about critical thinking and wider solidarity: in the end it can be a film about the path to respectability and, read that way, it pushes the same buttons as the dominant LGBT politics and art. Indeed, I saw the film praised by quite a few gay viewers whom I’d not long before witnessed viciously slating the RMT for their latest tube strike. Irony is not dead.

In this sense the film offers an unthreatening flirtation with radical politics, just as the examples of ‘art’ I mentioned at the beginning offer an unthreatening flirtation with the aggressive potential lurking in sexual ‘deviance’. We can draw further links from this, with the furores around the threatened closures of Madame JoJos and the Joiners Arms speaking to a contained and commodified radicalism which is about little beyond its own reflection. The rise of club nights which offer ‘crucial edginess’ as mentioned in the Joiners piece also clearly fit into this: they offer caricatures of rebellion which can be left behind at the door as you return to respectability. The latest advert for Sink the Pink is a pretty perfect illustration of this:
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Classist, condescending and sexist, this betrays the reactionary vacuum which lies behind the respectability politics so dominant in the LGBT world. It is from this vacuum that racist and orientalist ideas about the world beyond white Western Europe/North America flow and it is into it that true solidarity vanishes.

While I obviously had issues with Pride I don’t wish to condemn it out of hand: it was far better than I could ever have expected it to be and it had small but important touches which disrupted the dominant narrative as described above. One of these came to fruition at the emotional climax I wrote about. Prior to the mining community arriving in their droves, we are shown a Gay Pride organiser telling the members of LGSM that they can’t join the main parade with their ‘political’ banners because people just want a ‘celebration’. It’s only the force of numbers of the miners and LGSM that forces the organiser, due to sheer practical concerns, to back down. To me, that organiser can represent the current LGBT movement, apolitical and obsessed with respectability, and the film’s most truly radical message of solidarity for a current LGBT audience is not to say that we should seek to ape the politics of 1984 or ‘all get along’ but to remind us that even now we can join with others in a common cause and effect change not only out there but in our own reactionary and ‘respectable’ community.

It’s notable, then, that while the title of I Blame Society may allude to The Ballet’s radical sensibilities the music within is easily the most mainstream they have yet put their name to. This manifests itself not only in their most accomplished production to date but in lyrics which are never as direct as they have been previously. Meaningless, for example, has a nuance which is easily lost if you don’t know the band’s history. It opens with lines which allude to the gay marriage fight in the United States (and beyond) – “I’ve got no wedding dress, I’ve got no diamond ring… I guess my love is meaningless”. These lines could easily be taken as a standard plea for ‘marriage equality’ but, as the song expands to more existential questions of life, it becomes clear that singer Greg Goldberg is actually celebrating the freedom which comes with the absence of imposed definition and structure. It’s a song about queer liberation and with this in mind its shuffling gait and ’60s girl group backing vocals take on a greater resonance.

Review at link.

The Ballet – I Blame Society