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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Criminal World

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Back in 1972, David Bowie made an announcement that shocked the pop world. Declaring off-handedly that he was a bisexual, he turned himself at once into the biggest symbol of gay culture just as it was emerging from the underground. With hindsight, it seems pretty obvious that this announcement was actually made by the character Ziggy Stardust, not by Bowie himself. Bowie presumably did have some homosexual experiences, but he was always mainly a heterosexual. But for Ziggy, gayness was an integral part of his identity, giving him the alien image he required and turning him into the next step in the sexual revolution. It also gave Bowie the excuse to fuse together rock'n'roll and camp and create the aesthetics of glam. These actions opened up the way to many sexually confused kids who previously did not find their place in the strict gender categories that existed until then, and they used glam to express their divergence. For Bowie it was the ticket to superstardom, but it also became a huge liability. Because even after he killed Ziggy and moved on from glam, the world continued to regard him as the most famous openly gay person in showbiz, a label which he no longer identified with. With the album Let's Dance Bowie was aiming at mainstream success, and it was time to set the record, well, straight.

The declaration "I'm straight" was once again made through interviews, but it is also hinted at in this track, a cover of Metro's 1976 record 'Criminal World'. Metro was a British band (actually a duo) that came at the tail end of glam, and 'Criminal World' still has that gender-bending glam quality, so much so that it was banned by the BBC. The lyrics have definite bisexual overtones, and they seem to be telling the tale of a sexually confused couple who are doing things together that the rest of the world considers criminal.

You never told me of your other faces
You were the widow of the wildcat
And Now I know about your special kisses
And I know you know where that's at
I'm not the queen so there's no need to bow
I think I see beneath your make-up
I'll take your dress and we can truck on out
This is no ordinary
This is no ordinary . . .

Oh what a criminal world
The boys are like baby-faced girls
What a criminal girl
She'll show you where to shoot your gun.
What a typical mother's son
The only thing that she enjoys
Is a criminal world
Where the girls are like baby-faced boys.

You've got a very heavy reputation
But no one knows about your low-life
I know the way to find the situation
And hold a candle up to your high-life disguise
I saw you kneeling at my brother's door
That was no ordinary stick-up
I'm well aware just what you're looking for
I am no ordinary
I am no ordinary. . .

Indeed, this is no ordinary love song and these are not ordinary boy-and-girl lovers. But Bowie, in his rendition, makes them slightly more ordinary. The more provocative lines are changed – "I'm not the queen so there's no need to bow" is changed into "I guess I recognize your destination" while "I saw you kneeling at my brother's door" is changed into "You caught me kneeling at your sister's door" – making it sound more radio-friendly. Bowie seems to indicate, albeit in a very subtle way, that his days of sexual experimentations are behind him.

He was less subtle in his interviews, sensationally claiming that he was always straight and that the bisexual thing was merely a publicity stunt. This was once again a half-truth, and it had unfortunate political ramifications. But Bowie wanted to shake the gay image which he no longer identified with, and unfortunately this is probably the only way to do it. "And the wrong words make you listen in this criminal world" he sang in 'Fantastic Voyage', back in 1979. Bowie needed the world to listen and internalize that he isn't gay, so he went and said words that were wrong and immoral. This was a betrayal of his gay fans at the time they needed help the most (the early eighties were the worst time for gays, with the outbreak of AIDS and the resurgence of conservative politics), but it's hard to see how else he could have put his lingering gay image to rest once and for all. Sadly, it's a criminal world.

Bowie's version:

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