Monday, 11 January 2016

The Last Thing We Can Learn From David Bowie

With the news this morning that he died at the age of 69, today is 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 had 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 current 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. It's hard to listen to a lot  of music from that era for the same reason. But I still listen to Bowie, 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. 


  1. I understand the sentiment behind your post, especially since so many young girls are taken advantage of and are pressured to be older than they are(yes, even today!!), however, while you may feel 13 is too young, it's THIS culture that put a "time limit" on sexuality. 100 years ago, women of 13 were married with children and their own households to run. Times have changed, but our biology has not.

    I met my husband of 20 years well before 13, and I was perfectly capable of making a decision like Mattix as a girl made at my age. I think it's ageist of you to assume that she was too young, too startstruck, too overwhelmed to be able to give consent. Mattix makes it clear that she looked older, felt older, and was completely able to make clear and conscious decisions about what she did. And I doubt that David said, "Hey, how old are you anyway? Let's sign consent forms and see some id so that I know that you are legal."
    Many girls present themselves as older and the pictures of her clearly do not look like a 13 year old girl would, and as she said, she was consensual.

    While I DO NOT CONDONE UNDERAGE SEX, you cannot hold responsible this man for wanting to be with a girl who persuaded people she was older, more experienced, and make no mistake~consensual..and not regretting it now either.
    There are certainly rich people, stars, and many others who take advantage of young girls, but I don't think it's fair, especially on this day, to bring to light something that was clearly NOT something that should be pinned as shame on David Bowie. He was not beyond reproach, certainly far from it, but to try and equate him to Jimmy Page by linking that other blog makes me want to vomit on your blog. As does your thinking that no one is treated like Bowie anymore and that it is not possible. That is you being blind. It happens every single day. And to try and make David Bowie out as the bad guy, the day after he dies, is cruel and vile.
    Next time, have some respect for the dead.

  2. Thanks for this. I couldn't agree more. I had a similar reaction for much less reason when I heard of Wayne Roger's passing. He played "Trapper" John on MASH but I'd seen him in an old Have Gun, Will Travel episode and looked him up. I found out that he had a son whom he never spent much time with, just as my birth father gave me exactly 3 hours of time my whole life. I lost all respect for the actor after reading that.

  3. I am one of those young girls you are talking about, who spent time like that with a rocknroll demi-god and only, now, much later in life, is it hitting me HOW WRONG THAT WAS. Of him, twice my age, to take advantage of a child. Yes, those days, those days are gone, thank God, because yes, it does haunt you forever........especially when you are lied to and made to feel it is so very real and your innocence believes....and is betrayed.