Adam Lawler mourns the loss of some of the most progressive icons in music, and wonders what’s next for boundary-pushing pop.
LAST year was tough on ‘80s kids. They lost a lot of their icons, to whom their memories will always be tethered. The loss they felt resonated with their sons and daughters, who sat on their beds, bereft, suddenly acutely aware that the idols they had adopted as their own were never their own to begin with.
The 70s may have witnessed the glitter of glam-rock, but it was the 80s that put artists in a position to really mess with antiquated notions of gender. Flaming red mullets and pasty faces; precision-trimmed facial hair and eyeliner. Colourful suits and sleek bouffants; wearing dresses, cravats, thigh-high stockings or nothing at all on their album covers. They sang “She turns me on, don’t get me wrong” to a man, and “Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?”; the answer to all of which being unequivocally “yes”.
David Bowie, Prince, and George Michael were artists who never presented masculinity in the way that was expected. Maybe the gender fluidity in their aesthetic influenced this side of them, or maybe it was a direct result of it. Fiercely independent, they never bowed to norms, and existed only in the space they created for themselves in which to innovate.
The running theme between the three was fluidity; Bowie changed guises constantly, George Michael was unapologetically gay and masculine, while Prince changed his name to a symbol, which arguably acted as precedent for methods of gender-fluid identification. Without them we wouldn’t have Lady Gaga, La Roux, or Childish Gambino’s latest album. Much has been made of the post-gender world inhabited by Frank Ocean on last year’s “Blonde” (in the video for “Nikes” he wore sharp winged eyeliner), and Ocean has said he admires Prince for his disdain for “obviously archaic ideas like gender conformity.”
This influence is crucial in a time when we face the threat of being set back decades by the Trump administration and other influences. Losing these icons leaves us worse off than ever. We need to realise that although we may have needed them before, we haven’t for quite a while.
Bowie, although critically adored, could slink back into obscurity for another ten years without a sound; Prince was deep in his experiments, ignoring the mainstream, and George Michael’s last proper album was released in 2004. They may have left an indelible imprint on popular culture, and losing them feels momentous, but what we need most now are new innovators.
“but what we need most now are new innovators.”
In examining today’s cultural climate, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the world stopped turning after the 80s in terms of the gender progression spearheaded by these figures. While Bowie wore a dress around the streets of London, male make-up artists still get an excessive amount of hate online. Instead of strange or radical, we have faux-sensitive bro-pop from the Chainsmokers, and people still lodging complaints about female singers wearing “skimpy” outfits on stage.
If slut-shaming and toxic masculinity are still ever-present forces in the mainstream, what hope have the label-defying kids trying to break through? It’s a dire state of affairs, and compared to the era of Bowie et al, utterly regressive.
The only obvious heir to the throne is Christine and the Queens. Her real name is Heloïsse Letissier, and she has said that having a stage name reflects the amorphous process of making music. On one track, she sings “A half-breath away from changing my mind / ’cause just when you thought I’d still be a little girl / I’m one of the guys.”
Christine makes music that features all of the chilly glitchiness that is so mode-ish among alt-pop darlings at the moment, but combines that with showmanship reminiscent of the big three with more than a twist of Michael Jackson and an abundance of idiosyncratic charm.
She has danced her way firmly into the limelight in chic menswear, short trousers, and black leather Oxford shoes. This is the way forward: icons not dulling their edges in the process of trying to represent everyone, or only playing with gender in trendy, fashion-house-approved ways peddled by the likes of Young Thug and Jaden Smith. It’s about more than just wearing a skirt or transparently trying to generate think pieces.
“It’s about completely disregarding the idea that gender exists”
It’s not about wearing a red mullet, or thigh-high stockings, or colourful suits because that was someone else’s idea of self-expression. It’s about completely disregarding the idea that gender exists, in a singular way. It’s in the specifics of the individual that translates to the universal; after all, who on this earth can’t relate to the drive to innovate and succeed on one’s own terms?
This is the enduring quality of stars: they live above us all, guiding us while we remain hung up on who gets to use which bathroom. David Bowie, Prince, and George Michael were musical deities because they did what we all wish we could – defy conventions and transcend boundaries, yet by constantly evolving and never remaining static, they also represented the fullness of human nature in all its complexity. In their own words, “it’s time we all reach out for something new.”