When I heard that David Bowie had died, the first thing I did was pull up YouTube. I focused on hearing the songs again, and let the chaos of the morning at our house – plastic spoons, bibs and Tonka trucks – unfurl around me. When I first listened to ‘Life On Mars,’ I just heard a great song: the children started wailing along to ‘Sailors fighting in the dance hall’, spinning round the kitchen, and swinging to the beat.
Later I listened again, and there was no one but me in the kitchen this time. Tiny spots of snow were falling on the other side of the glass doors, and my hand was cramped with the cold. I was trying to work out why the song was so important, and I remembered listening to Bowie for the very first time. I had an ugly black box of a cassette player and I was seventeen. Already I knew what violation meant, and at that moment my heart sang with anger and bitterness because Bowie spoke for me.
Commenting in the 70s on the story of ‘Life On Mars,’ Bowie said that he imagined a ‘sensitive young girl’ and her reaction to the media: a media that promised a beautiful dream of a life but did not deliver. How fresh and raw it was then for my seventeen-year-old self still half-dreaming of the perfect heterosexual romance, and feeling cheated beyond belief. How bitter and old I felt too, and each romantic silver-screen image like a shadow puppet, a pale imitation of a starker truth.
Bowie himself probably committed statutory rape, and so it is ironic that, fifteen years after writing ‘Life on Mars,’ he could reach a disturbed seventeen year old and make her feel powerful and wise. Bowie is tainted by the allegations of statutory rape. Nothing can make up for that. Nothing should silence that fact. But then Bowie wasn’t joking when he asked us to be heroes ‘just for one day’. Bowie was an artist, not a hero, and he knew it, or perhaps we should have known that uncomplicated heroes are a figment of the imagination too.
I am not writing this down to excuse Bowie, far from it. Instead, we have to face the unpalatable fact that it is not only monsters that rape, and the men who rape are not simply monstrous. They are friends and colleagues and neighbors. They are comedians and patriarchs and the directors of your favorite films. They are the stars you idolize and adore. In short, rape culture is in the fabric of our very society. Rape culture is the elephant in the room that we are trying to ignore, so we try distraction. When Bowie asks ‘Is there life on Mars?,’ he flags up a ridiculous and pathetic attempt to look out into the cosmos when we should be looking in at ourselves.