The David Bowie Renaissance: The Greatest Soft Power Icon in History

David Bowie

David Bowie

“We could be heroes, just for one day” crooned the artist who became a star, legend, and hero to many for much more than just one day. As we remember David Bowie following his recent passing, we are paying tribute not only to a musical legend who reinvented himself across decades, capturing the passions and plights of generations, but also to a ground-breaking icon for the underdogs, whose fame catapulted him to a symbol of soft power. David Bowie, even in his death, is one of the most culturally influential stars in recent decades and his voice, music, and constant reinvention made him a hero for many of society’s outcasts in the 1970s and 80s, especially members of the LGBT community. 

LGBT Diplomatic Icon

As Bowie rose to unprecedented heights of stardom through the 1970s and 80s, these decades proved to be a tumultuous time for the LGBT community. The years leading into the 70s began a series of movements in the western world with England decriminalizing homosexuality in 1967 and the Stonewall Riots in the US in 1969. A transformation was taking place, emphasizing the visibility of the LGBT community. But not everyone was happy with this new found visibility and the community was stigmatized for their differences. Violence stalked the LGBT community--murders due to sexuality, acts of arson on places LGBT individuals sought refuge, assaults on individuals known or assumed to be gay. The same decade that saw Harvey Milk elected saw him assassinated a year later. The 1980s brought about a whole new category of challenges with the discovery of AIDS in 1981 and its link to the gay men community. The disease--seen to be had only by gay men and drug users--was not only a ticking time bomb, but also a sentence of isolation from ignorance from those who did not understand the illness or its causes. But through these changing times, there was the birth of one star--or rather his arrival to planet Earth--that began to pave the way for being different.

Ziggy Stardust

The bisexual androgynous alien rock star portrayed by David Bowie was an instant icon for the LGBT community from the moment he took the stage at the historic Top of the Pops performance in 1972. Ziggy Stardust projected an otherworldly essence and in this way the legendary singer redefined sexuality for an entire generation. This character of flamboyant colors and disregard for gender norms showed the LGBT community that it was ok to be different and furthermore, that being so made you one step closer to the world’s newest iconic star.

As for the artist himself, David Bowie declared he was gay in a 1972 interview with Melody Maker. Then in 1976, Bowie shocked again with a Playboy interview in which he stated, “It’s true--I am a bisexual...But I can’t deny that I’ve used that fact very well. I suppose it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” Being a spokesperson for LGBT movements, however, was not exactly his wish; in a Blender interview in 2002, he is quoted as saying, “I had no problem with people knowing I was bisexual. But I had no inclination to hold any banners nor be a representative of any group of people.” Bowie eventually went back on his statements, telling Rolling Stone that he was “always a closeted homosexual.” 

From Music to Mass Followers

Regardless of his sexual orientation, Bowie’s statements were profound and his music even more life-altering for many members of the LGBT community during his rise to stardom. Bowie defied gender boundaries with his creation of characters and costumes, and constant reinventions. Bowie was an icon who made being different not only possible but acceptable. To so many at the time, he was their survival, projecting an otherness that thousands could relate to. In a memorandum piece for Pitch Fork, Alex Frank sums it up perfectly when he states, “There are few figures, at least in the influential world of pop culture, that I’d give more credit to [than David Bowie] for expanding the boundaries of what we think as beautiful.”

Soft Power Music

Bowie had a pristine ability to reach out to a variety of audiences and connect with a plethora of communities. In this way, he became a figure of soft power, using his cultural influence in the realm of international relations and diplomacy. Bowie was not only a spokesperson for the unique creativity, innovation, and culture in Britain, but also a citizen of the world. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German Minister for Foreign Affairs, says of the artist, “David Bowie had something that is also essential for diplomacy, that is the curiosity to discover the world through the eyes of others…” This could especially be seen in his albums dedicated to his time in Berlin, a city still divided by a wall and all its symbolic meaning during his period of exploring its underground rock scene. These albums, especially “Heroes”, were filled with Cold War imagery, capturing the life and challenges of the divided city. The title track itself became a soundtrack to peaceful revolution in 1989.

Down Came the Berlin Wall

One of Bowie’s most iconic moments in the field of soft power was his passionate performance at the Berlin Wall in 1987. The concert, which used the wall as a backdrop, drew in thousands of East Berliners singing and cheering alongside Bowie and the West Berliners from their side of the city. Through that performance, David Bowie unified a divided city, linking people whose city was the same but lives were so different. The artist spoke emotionally about the concert, remembering it:

“I’ll never forget that. It was one of the most emotional performances I’ve ever done. I was in tears...We kind of heard that a few of the East Berliners might actually get the chance to hear the thing, but we didn’t realize in what numbers they would. And there were thousands on the other side that had come close to the wall. So it was like a double concert where the wall was the division. And we could hear them cheering and singing along from the other side...It was breaking my heart….When we did ‘Heroes’ it really felt anthemic, almost like a prayer…”

Reinvention of Character

In his life, David Bowie was so much: a plethora of characters, a musician constantly reinventing himself with the times, an icon, a cultural phenomenon, a hero. For the peoples of the LGBT community to the divided Berliners and everyone in between, his voice and words struck a note of creativity and otherworldliness, but also of unity and acceptance. He will be remembered--and missed--for so much more than his musical talent.

“There’s a starman waiting in the sky. He’d like to come and meet us, but he’s thinks he’d blow our mind.”

He already did.