Were the 1970s really that bad?

A new exhibition at London’s V&A, David Bowie Is, does not do justice to the decade in which Bowie flourished: the Seventies.

Niall Crowley

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The exhibition David Bowie Is, currently breaking attendance records at London’s Victoria and Albert museum, seeks to tell the story of the star’s life and career using video, audio, an assortment of artefacts and, of course, some of his most famous outfits. There is plenty of interesting visual material and lots of information here, but despite an attempt to provide some sort of social context, David Bowie Is fails to explain either his cultural significance or his seeming uniqueness in the 1970s.

There is no doubt that Bowie stood apart from his contemporaries in the music world of the early Seventies. While most glamrockers, wearing platform boots and sparkly suits, looked like dicks, Bowie carried himself, onstage and off, with style and panache. He was ever inventive, creating bold new stage personas and wearing outfits the like of which the pop world had not seen before.

More daringly, he flirted with sexual taboos. His often androgynous appearance, risqué song lyrics and hints about bisexuality outraged many in the mainstream. All this at a time when a boy with even a stud or a ring in his ear would risk being called a ‘queer’ or a ‘puff’.

Perhaps what really distinguished David Bowie from his pop-music contemporaries was his willingness to experiment, his hunger to learn from social and cultural history and from the world around him, and to bring all this to bear on his music. He drew on a range of traditions including avant-garde theatre, Japanese design and Weimar cabaret. And he had the ability to switch effortlessly between cultural worlds, appearing as much at ease in the pop charts as he was in the avant-garde company of the likes of Andy Warhol and Christopher Isherwood.

In a conservative and stale pop industry, where what was played was decided largely by out-of-touch music execs, Bowie was a shining star. The charts were dominated by third-rate, badly dressed bands with fourth-rate forgettable songs aimed at pre-pubescent girls and ageing grannies. No wonder Bowie looked and sounded like a ‘Man Who Fell to Earth’.

This image of Bowie contributes to the lazy and oft-peddled myth that the Seventies was the decade that good taste forgot. Yet the Seventies get a bad rap because many fail to look at what was going on away from the gaze of radio, television and newspapers. In the Seventies, you see, not everything revolved around, or was reported in, the media.

Bowie certainly inspired many young people to be more experimental with their clothes and perhaps even their sexuality. But he was not so unique. They may not have had the internet, but young people in the Seventies had much more going for them than we give them credit for. Your average nine-year-old may have been fascinated by Raleigh Chopper bikes, sherbet dips and the Six Million Dollar Man. But if you were in your mid-20s, chances are you were a little more worldly.

Many young people at the time shared Bowie’s wide tastes and interests. It wasn’t too difficult to find even working-class kids who read books such as Isherwood’s influential Goodbye to Berlin (which inspired Bowie and formed the basis for the musical Cabaret), and had fairly relaxed attitudes to homosexuality and race. Many were socially adventurous and sufficiently care-free to spend their weekends travelling the country to be part of a particular underground music scene. Some even went to gay clubs.

However, the lives and interests of young people were rarely reflected on television or in the newspapers, except when they were depicted as troublemakers. Young people’s music was rarely played on the radio. This is one of the main reasons why the Seventies are so often depicted as being all about flared trousers, crap pop and awful TV. The ordinary lives of young people – from their militancy at work to what they got up to in their leisure time – just wasn’t reflected in the media of the period.

In the V&A exhibition, the curators’ attempt to explain or place Bowie in a social and cultural context amounts to little more than a timeline of historical events. Yet despite all the information panels, David Bowie Is doesn’t tell us much that couldn’t be easily found on the internet or in TV footage and documentaries about the man.

So does David Bowie’s life and career warrant a grand exhibition in a prestigious institution like the V&A? It’s a big ask of one man, even for a true icon of popular culture, such as he is. Inevitably, the exhibition tends towards mythologising and overstatement, but in an age when everyone seems to be a ‘legend’ or an ‘icon’, when even Keith Chegwin can be described as a ‘legend’ (of children’s TV), perhaps it’s no bad thing to put someone of Bowie’s calibre up on a pedestal.

However, the exhibition is a mixed bag. Aside from the unreliable video and audio headsets, seeing some of Bowie’s famous stage costumes up close was mostly disappointing. Draped on a dummy in a glass case, the pale blue zoot suit from his 1983 ‘Serious Moonlight’ tour was nothing to write home about. But turn your head and watch the video of him with his curly blond quiff, strutting his stuff on stage, and both the suit and Bowie look amazing.

Maybe that was what was missing from this exhibition after all: the great White Duke himself.

Niall Crowley is a writer living in London.

Picture: Young Americans tour, 1974, by Hunter Desportes

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