David Bowie, Prince and George Michael are all pop icons who died in 2016. But there is something else that connects them: They all helped to redefine the concept of masculinity in pop culture.
Cultural critic Wesley Morris has been thinking about how these artists performed gender and sexuality. He recently wrote in The New York Times that in today’s climate, “The Princes and the George Michaels seem as radical as ever.”
Morris joined NPR’s Ari Shapiro to discuss how Bowie, Prince and Michael called upon their audiences to reimagine what it is to be a man. Hear their full conversation at the audio link and read an edited transcript below.
Ari Shapiro: Let’s start with David Bowie. He was the oldest of the three, and he kind of paved the way in the 1970s. How do you think he changed our view of manliness?
Wesley Morris: Sort of by suggesting that it didn’t exist, for at least the first 10 or 11 years of his career. He was part of a wave of artists who were interested in — and I don’t know how conscious it was — but it definitely was a reaction against a kind of standard notion [of what] men are supposed to do, any sort of male cliché.
So paint a picture of what he did — how he performed his version of what it meant to be a man.
For one thing, he was limber. He seemed very loose. He was what I imagine the people who might have tormented him, or tormented kids like him, would have called a “sissy” — on the nicer end, I guess, the less mean end. I think that he was really interested in his femininity more than he was interested in his masculinity. He spent a lot of time creating these personae that were androgynous — they weren’t from this planet.
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Right. As much as he dissolved the border between male and female, he also kind of dissolved the border between human and alien.
I mean, he made every aspect of what was normal about being human seem foreign. I think that Ziggy Stardust period was probably the most obviously queer period that he performed in. He was interested in this makeup and these platforms and this hair, and it was neither male nor female, and I think that was what was so disconcerting about him.
But also, if you were a kid, it was kind of weirdly exciting, because these ideas of gender and masculinity and femininity are these acquired notions. I think that if you’re ignorant of what they signify, you see this person signifying none of it and it kind of blows your mind.