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Bowie and the Ecstatic Queerness of 'Starman'

In the '70s, Ziggy Stardust broke apart the common script of queerness as a perversion.

David Bowie’s career might have been the longest sustained art piece in pop culture, and for many, it began in 1972 with The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. That September, the band debuted their first single, “Starman,” on "Top of the Pops." At that time, “glam,” as an idea, already existed by way of Marc Bolan’s T. Rex, but the lithe and luminous Bowie and his glitter-spangled smirk were something altogether new. Dressed in a Lurex jumpsuit with fire-engine-red hair, Bowie flirts unabashedly with the camera as he navigates the chorus's flamboyant octave leap — an explicit nod to Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a fixture of midcentury gay culture. He fixes his eyes on the camera, makes sure he’s being seen, and then he effortlessly stamps down a wall: He throws his arm around Mick Ronson, his long-haired guitarist, a move that in 1972 was unequivocally considered homoerotic, a flaming "f-ck you."

Homosexuality had been legal for just five years; that February, Bowie had casually, smirkingly come out to Melody Maker, and in July, 2,000 people marched through London in the U.K.'s first-ever pride rally. But "Starman" gathered that momentum and drew it into suburban houses via a trusted TV channel, landing an ecstatic gesture of queerness squarely in the domain where it was least welcome. “I had to phone someone, so I picked on you,” Bowie sings, pointing his finger directly into the camera and wags it around with the theatrical posturing that would become his patent. “If we can sparkle, he may land tonight / Don’t tell your papa, he’ll get us locked up in fright.” The closeted kids who saw this alien beam into their living rooms could rest assured that their secret would be safe, even as their parents looked on -- and that there was another world out there where it wouldn’t have to be a secret at all.

“Starman” and Ziggy Stardust -- a bisexual, polyamorous alien rock star who descended to earth to show the kids a groovier way of life -- broke apart the common script of queerness as a perversion, an aberration, an anomaly. If it was unnatural to be queer, then “Starman” was proof that the queer kids came from a world brighter than this one. On national television, Bowie cast sexual transgression not as a failure of masculinity but rather as a transcendence of masculinity, of joyous ascendance into a celestial world without gender; he called us to imagine our lives without rigidity and shame. Compulsive heterosexuality and its suburban prisons turned cold and mundane in his dilated gaze. He came from a better world and he journeyed here to share its gifts -- daring us all to sparkle bright enough to be seen.