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Chris O'Leary

Chris O’Leary is a freelance writer and editor based in western Massachusetts. He has written for Pitchfork, Slate, New York, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, and is the author of two books on the songs of David Bowie: Rebel Rebel (Zero, 2015), and the upcoming Ashes to Ashes (Repeater, 2019).
 
"Boys Keep Swinging in a Criminal World"
In 1972, David Bowie told Melody Maker that he was gay, and always had been. In 1983, he told Rolling Stone he’d only been an “experimental” bisexual and that his earlier statements had been the biggest mistake of his life. The cover had the notorious headline “David Bowie Straight.”

Each of these interviews had commercial motivations. Coming out in 1972 gave Bowie underground notoriety and easy headlines. “David Bowie Straight” in 1983 was core to the mainstreaming of his image, and it worked: he sold more records and played larger venues than ever before. The latter was regarded as a cynical betrayal by many who’d considered him to be “the gay Elvis”. Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine is in part a vicious fable of how Bowie murdered his gorgeous gay soul to reincarnate into a crass straight rocker.

Later in life, Bowie looked back on this era in regret, but also in anger at the presumptions of those who had judged him. It would be the boldest appropriation of a life full of appropriation. Can an artist dabble in bisexuality as he had Philadelphia Soul, or German electronic music? Bowie claimed that he certainly could. Those for whom he’d opened up a world (and then had abandoned it) had other perspectives. And did Bowie’s press statements even matter in the long run? As Tom Robinson said, “for gay musicians, Bowie was seismic. To hell with whether he disowned us later.”

This presentation will explore how this story played out through three key Bowie songs of the period: “John, I’m Only Dancing,” “Boys Keep Swinging,” and “Criminal World,” the cover song whose lyric he stripped of bisexual content before recording it for Let’s Dance.