JANUARY 29, 2018
THE TITLE OF Darryl W. Bullock’s latest book, David Bowie Made Me Gay: 100 Years of LGBT Music, raises a few questions. Is this a memoir, detailing the author’s coming to terms with his own identity through the sexually protean Thin White Duke (or Ziggy Stardust or Major Tom or Aladdin Sane or, for the more cinematically minded queer babies of my generation, the Goblin King)? If so, how will this intimate and personal narrative intersect with the promised examination of a century of LGBT music? Spoiler alert: It won’t, really. Bowie is positioned at the beginning of the book both as an emblem of the monumental boomer music losses of 2016 (Prince, Maurice White, Glenn Frey, George Martin, Leonard Cohen, Pete Burns, and George Michael, to name a few), pointing out that, even when just one entry in the list of the previous year’s dearly departed, he elicited a staggering volume of grief from diverse audiences around the world. After the first chapters, he is never heard from again.
This is because Bullock doesn’t want to tell the story of how Bowie — someone with a complicated relationship to queer subcultures, who would in 1993 come out as a “closet heterosexual” and face accusations of cultural appropriation — “made him gay,” aside from a broad acknowledgment of the importance of celebrities coming out publicly. What he wants to do is write the contributions of LGBT people into pop music history (a worthwhile task, to be sure). But for Bullock’s reparative history, one can imagine a self-identifying LGBT musician serving just as well. Why is Bowie — white male androgynous space alien, coming out time and again to the press, as gay, as bisexual, as refusing sexual and gender conformity — Bullock’s emblem for queer influence in popular music? What exactly is “LGBT music” to Bullock? Is it music made by LGBT people? Music consumed by LGBT people? Music that, somehow, seems uniquely lesbian or gay or bisexual or transgender in its themes, sounds, structures, or forms? This framing device raises a number of fascinating questions about the relationship between music and the development of sexual identity that the book fails to address at all. With the exception of the titular Bowie, Bullock confines his history mainly to the first category: music made by LGBT people. In this way, he robs the subject of some of its complexity (no more mention of the many hetero artists and/or normatively gendered genres and styles that have tended to draw queer audiences here, unless the draw was a queer performer).
It might be a little unfair to expect a book whose stated aim is to reclaim performers whose stories have been straight-washed and to celebrate those LGBT musical icons whose sexual identities and behaviors have been ripped to shreds in the public eye — to come to terms with a survey so expansive. In such a survey any music at all could be classified as “LGBT.” Instead, the author strives to catalog and honor the contributions of these individuals, so often, he argues, eclipsed by gossip and speculation about their sexuality. It would also be unfair to fault Bullock for not being as inclusive as he could’ve been; certainly Sylvester Made Me Gay or Dusty Springfield Made Me Gay would’ve been very different books than the one under discussion here. “This book is not intended as a fully comprehensive guide to every LGBT musician who has ever entered a recording studio,” Bullock offers by way of anticipatory apology, “but it is my hope that, through its pages, you will discover some of the people who spent their lives fighting for us to be heard.” I was still a little disappointed that instead of an intimate and personal narrative interwoven into a broader history, the survey of the “100 Years of LGBT Music” advertised in the second half of the title proceeds in a fairly traditional manner, and David Bowie represents not an opportunity to examine the complexities of music and sexual identity, but simply the cultural position of the author.
To begin, Bullock surveys a number of musicians, LGBT and otherwise (The Gun Club’s Kid Congo Powers, Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Holly Johnson and Paul Rutherford, XTC’s Andy Partridge, Erasure’s Andy Bell, Culture Club’s Boy George, Soft Cell’s Marc Almond), who cite watching Bowie’s boundary-pushing 1972 performance of “Starman” on Top of the Pops as a central moment in imagining what they could be: as queer, as performers, as outsiders. Of course, as I’ve alluded to already, David Bowie may have made Bullock et al gay, but over the span of a multi-decade career, audiences were introduced to a variety of configurations of gender and sexuality through Bowie’s numerous performing personas and, just as importantly, his public statements in interviews. In 1972, months before the aforementioned Top of the Pops performance and two years after his first marriage (to the seldom-remembered Angie Bowie), he told Melody Maker journalist Michael Watts that he was gay. In 1976, he told Playboy that he was bisexual. Soon after, in 1979 — in a terse clapback during an interview with Mavis Nicholson — he expressed annoyance with the refutations and disbelief that accompanied his declaration of bisexuality, though, in a curious turn of the history of his public identity, he would ultimately acquiesce to those refutations. In 1983, he told Rolling Stone’s Kurt Loder that the Melody Maker interview, which inspired Bullock and countless others, was “the biggest mistake I ever made […] Christ, I was so young then. I was experimenting …”
I groan along with a million bisexuals and queer people at this trajectory. We are used to designations of sexual fluidity as “experimentation” or “immaturity” or “provocation” or other artifice, but it’s clear that Bowie’s protracted and very public negotiations of his sexuality (and whatever identity might hold thereto) are part of what gives him a wider, queerer appeal. As Bullock explains in the first chapter: “Gay, straight or bisexual: whatever word Bowie chose to define his sexuality, this particular cat was out of the bag — or rather the closet. He’d said it, in print, and for thousands of young LGBT people across the world, life was suddenly a little less suffocating.” It is this kind of influence that Bullock tries to document in David Bowie Made Me Gay, though again, he does this mainly through an exploration of LGBT artists, not artists who have inspired LGBT people.
Drawing predominantly on primary periodical sources and interviews (again, a lot of third- to fourth- to fifth-hand stories that could be classified as “gossip”), Bullock’s freewheeling survey moves more or less chronologically through various genres of music (the blues, jazz, cabaret and night club music, “blue” novelty records, early experimental electronic music, country, folk, disco, punk, protest music, dance music, et cetera), using influential figures and significant records to orient the reader in this vast sea of names. The first 80 pages cover the first half of the 20th century, taking us from jazz and the blues around the turn of the 20th century through the “Pansy Craze” and the vogue for gender non-conforming performers that petered out around World War II. Bullock surveys these fêted pansies, as well as male and female impersonators popular throughout the 1930s in the United States, jumping across the pond to consider the concurrent embrace of similar performers in UK music halls and treating the reader to brief forays into musical life in France and Germany. The next 200 pages tackle the second half of the 20th century, with chapters on queer progenitors of — or early and/or exceptional participants in — well-known genres of music. These chapters are rooted in the post-Stonewall musical developments of the 1970s, but open out into discussions of artists making music in later decades, moving away from the straightforwardly chronological organization of the preceding chapters.
Even in the chapters on more contemporary music, an elegiac, memorial tone persists in Bullock’s prose: an attempt to counter the usual gossipy narratives of LGBT musical icons’ lives, which he argues eclipses a full consideration of their musical and cultural influence. In this endeavor, Bullock sometimes succeeds, sometimes fails; gossip can be both a historian’s most tangible source of information where sexuality is concerned and one of the most limited vantage points for interrogating a life and its cultural ripples. Bullock brings attention to an impressive number of LGBT performers, composers, technicians, and producers, and it is shocking such a guide doesn’t exist already. Over the course of its 350 pages — crammed with probably as many, if not more, names — David Bowie Made Me Gay certainly succeeds at being the kind of survey Bullock sets out to provide in the introduction, and many will be very excited at the existence of such a capacious reference.
David Bowie Made Me Gay is, indeed, impressively capacious in this regard, but as a result, the book is uneven in both tone and treatment. It lists heavily toward gay and British examples and concentrates, unsurprisingly, on the period between the ’60s and the ’80s. Non-Anglo examples (Jamaica, Kenya, Russia) are grouped together unfortunately in a chapter called “Hope and Homophobia,” along with the only segment on queer hip-hop (a genre which I would think demands its own chapter). Engaging narratives tracking the development of particular albums, performers, and record labels are interrupted by tedious sections that contain long lists of names and little else, and some sections — such as the discussion of Liberace, which transitions clumsily from a gloss of Billie Holiday’s career and purported romance with Tallulah Bankhead to a retelling of Liberace’s rise to fame and libel case — are arranged seemingly at random. Scanning the table of contents before I jumped in filled me with the same vertiginous feeling I got picking up Judith Peraino’s Listening to the Sirens: Musical Technologies of Queer Identity from Homer to Hedwig (University of California Press, 2005) for the first time. Listening to the Sirens also considers the ways in which music helps queer subjects make sense of themselves, though she, even more ambitiously than Bullock, does so over a period of 30 centuries instead of just one and doesn’t limit herself to popular music. As a result, it’s just as all-over-the-place as David Bowie Made Me Gay, in spite of its professed linear chronology. Is this, one wonders, ever the fate of historical studies that attempt to chart the harmonies and dissonances between queerness and music? The grasp perpetually exceeding the reach in an attempt to account for the “LGBT community” as some kind of monolithic whole?
The main challenge for any book like Bullock’s or Peraino’s is one of scope and scale for organizing so much material. These problems are particularly acute when studying sexuality, an area of identity and experience inflected by gender, race, class, and nation — separable components that form unique constellations of behavior, self-identity, social identity, gender presentation, and so on and so forth that differ from individual to individual and have the slippery tendency to change over time. These problems are further complicated by the fact that individuals who we might want to claim as queer forebears actively hid their sexual behavior or identity, or may have had understandings of sexuality that differ drastically from our own, eschewing the verbal confirmations or denials Bullock’s book favors. The historian in me cringed at several anachronistic uses of language, as when Bullock refers to 17th-century composers Jean-Baptiste Lully and Arcangelo Corelli as “gay,” a word that refers to a category of identity that neither existed nor would have held any meaning for the, respectively, French and Italian court-employed composers.
The impulse to identify and honor historical figures, musical or otherwise, who reflect our identities, desires, and struggles back to us can be very powerful, especially in non-generational communities like the expansive “LGBT,” and I’m glad Bullock’s survey is out there in the world. As I’m sure has been made clear throughout this review, I think a much more interesting approach, one that would honor the complexity of the kinds of influence popular music exercises in our lives as queer people, would have been the intimate, the autobiographical. It is my secret hope that every LGBT reader of this book will mad-lib the title and think about which pop music icons, LGBT and otherwise, played a role in shaping their sexualities (alas, the likely mortifying but highly entertaining Fiona Apple Made Me Queer and Misanthropic, will unfortunately have to wait till I finish my dissertation). But there are as many unwritten hundred-year surveys of LGBT music out there as there are LGBT people, and honestly, I’d probably love to read each and every one of them, in all their uneven, flawed, and exuberant glory.