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Scary Monsters: the life and impact of David Bowie at Queer Contact 2017

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By Emily Oldfield & Bridget Taylor

‘Scary Monsters’, an afternoon celebrating the life and impact of David Bowie, was hosted by Keele University Professor of Law Alex Sharpe this weekend at Manchester Met. The event formed part of the 2017 Queer Contact Festival.

In an hour-long talk, filled with clips from Bowie songs and quotations from the man himself, Sharpe explored the meaningful nature of the ‘monstrous’ in Bowie’s life and work. “It is monsters that point the way, she said in her introduction, outlining that the lecture would explore three areas: ‘monsters’, ‘hope’ and David Bowie himself, all particularly profound following Bowie’s death last year, aged 69.

The lecture started with some theory and the key categorical distinctions brought about by the concept of ‘monsters’. To illustrate the scary, yet seductive, nature of the monster, Sharpe played the track ‘Sweet Thing’ from Bowie’s 1974 album Diamond Dogs. She then discussed the sensitive nature in which the song describes isolation and loneliness, and although beginning with a male escort and the prospect of rough sex, “As the song develops, so does the tenderness.” This reveals part of the monster, according to Sharpe, as the monstrous can carry contradictions, a quote from Simon Critchley supporting her views: “‘Bowie’s music is at discord with the World – we see things in utopian light.‘”

It is in seeing the capacity for experience and meaningful sensation, even in situations that initially appear negative, that the hope that connects Bowie to the monster lies. Sharpe also referenced the work of French philosophy about the monstrous, particularly that of Foucault, who extended the idea of the monstrous beyond the body to focus on the monster within. “It is the human/non-human hybrid, existing in nature but confounding law, that I want to take up,” Sharpe explained, going on to talk about how monsters, although we may not initially expect it, are intrinsically hopeful for two reasons: that they are a promise of a future, and that they are still sacred in a world without God.

She went on to reference the philosopher Derrida, who notably developed the idea that “the future is necessarily monstrous” and it was David Bowie who essentially embraced and added to the future in assuming a number of monstrous identities. In a slogan used to advertise his 1977 album Heroes, Bowie reflected that “Tomorrow belongs to those who hear it coming.”

David Bowie is known for his array of artistic identities, particularly during a high level of musical output in the 1970s. He is also renowned for breaking the boundaries of gender and sexuality, as well as questioning religion and convention. An example given was when he came out as gay to the public in 1972, whilst still being married to his wife Angie. Yet he did not get behind any particular campaign for gay rights. As Sharpe said, he hated anything “tribal” and savoured his individuality, savoured the monstrous. “We want to love and be loved… so embrace the monster we must,” she said.

Examples of Bowie both being and embracing the monster were exhibited on-screen as the talk occurred, from his iconic ‘Ziggy Stardust’ alien character and the ‘Thin White Duke’ of the later 1970s to the tragicomic clown image associated with his 1980 Scary Monsters album. Another quote from Bowie himself shed light on the series of transformations: “I always had a repulsive need to be something more than human,” he said in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 1976. As Sharpe argued, “Monsters  scare the shit out of us,” but “We like it.”

It is this amalgam of fear and desire which keeps audiences engaged and moved, Bowie undergoing a kind of self-destruction in which he would dissolve and reconstitute himself. Sharpe implied that this was true artistic integrity, whilst shedding a critical light on what some term the ‘cock rock’ of the 1970s: masculine, heteronormative bands such as The Who destroying their instruments on stage.

Instead, Sharpe presented Bowie as a “child of Burroughs and Warhol,” influenced by pop art and alternate means of production such as the ‘cut up technique’, in turn avoiding the idealising of authenticity associated with the 1960s and embracing something much more realistic. His re-using and reinterpretation of material often attracted criticism, whilst Sharpe argued that it was actually a protean creature of death and rebirth,” gesturing towards the truth.

According to Sharpe, to foreground nostalgia would be to misrepresent experience, and, therefore, looking to Bowie following his death can be seen as a source of hope for the future rather than just a romanticised past:Bowie seeks to throw off the weight of history. A creature of our postmodern age, better to die and be reborn.” After all, it is through one of his last songs ‘Lazarus’, on the 2016 award-winning album Blackstar, released just before his death, that Bowie reflects on resurrection.

Producer Barry Priest spoke to Humanity Hallows about why this year’s Queer Contact Festival has been particularly successful: “Over three thousand people attended the festival and we’ve had some incredible reactions, particularly to David Hoyle’s autobiographical show, which looked at LGBT+ history in the UK through the medium of his life. We’ve had some sold out shows and it’s been really exciting to work with so many great artists.”

Manchester Writing School Manager James Draper added: “We’re very pleased to be working in partnership with such an innovative and exciting festival, and it’s nice to see such a varied mix of people coming in to the university from outside, and lots of academic staff and students attending as well.”

The Bowie lecture was particularly well-received, with one audience member commenting, “It was really thought-provoking – I like having my mind expanded.”

Another reflected on the wider course of events:“One of the other Queer Contact events I went to – I found it disturbing in some ways which is good – you don’t want something that panders to your preconceptions, but something that challenges you – and the Bowie lecture was similar.”

For more information about Queer Contact 2017, visit the Contact Theatre website.

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