George Michael, Prince & David Bowie || The Soundtrack Against Toxic Masculinity

God wasn’t 2016 rubbish? In the next few weeks, Boshemia will almost definitely be musing over how god awful the last year was, but today we’re going to be looking at one of the prevailing themes of the year: Toxic Masculinity. In a year of Trump asserting his masculinity in dangerous ways over everything he seemed to cross, and then somehow getting awarded for it; a year of Brexit and the following fight for the Prime Minister spot being nothing more than a dick measuring contest, only for the cursed position to go for a woman, almost certainly setting her up for failure. In a year of rape accusations, police shootings, terrorist attacks (good god the year’s even worse when you write it all down!), we coincidentally lost three icons of masculinity and gender subversion. On December 25th, aged 53, George Michael joined Prince and David Bowie in the pantheon of people destroyed by 2016; the trifecta of 80s queer icons has gone, politicians are swiftly moonwalking away from identity politics, and the world is basking in the stench of toxic masculinity. Merry Christmas.

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and i’m never gonna dance again

Given that Last Christmas is on a constant loop this time of year, and that Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go is apparently the only Wham! / George Michael song that the 80’s bars know, it would be easy to dismiss George Michael as a typical 80s pop star but boy could siiing.* Have you heard Careless Whisper or his version of Somebody to Love at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert? He had a serious set of pipes! So it makes sense that in his 30-year career, he got 2 Grammy’s, 3 Brits, and was the most played British artist on the radio58a558dee8f2d6e72eb74ab62aab3703 between 1984 and 2004. In the coming weeks when we look back on 2016 deaths, Michael won’t be as revered as David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen or George Martin, as I’m sure people consider him too “pop.” To that, Michael had a pre-prepared clap back from 1988: “If you listen to a Supremes record or a Beatles record, which were made in the days when pop was accepted as an art of sorts, how can you not realize that the elation of a good pop record is an art form? Somewhere along the way, pop lost all its respect. And I think I kind of stubbornly stick up for all of that.” As a former ~real music~ snob, he’s completely right and Club Tropicana is a complete bop and no one can tell me otherwise.

Unfortunately, being a successful public figure in a very homophobic society opens you up to all sorts of criticism, and Michael was forcibly outed in a sting operation by the LAPD in 1998 reminding us all that the LAPD are terrible. While others might have hid in shame or embarrassment, Michael came out shortly afterward, offering the biggest fuck you (and a fantastically camp video) to the generalised homophobia that got him arrested in the first place. Michael became a gay icon, speaking and singing candidly about how sexuality and how natural the whole thing is. All this in a time when in the eyes of the public, being gay was basically an admission of being a sinful sinner with AIDs. Instead of backing down from the public scrutiny, he became something of an activist, campaigning for AIDs research and LBGTQ rights. Furthermore, after his passing, people have started to share stories of his various charitable acts, and the guy was practically a saint.

The world saw him mature from closeted 80s pop star to an out and proud activist who refused to let the realities of his sexuality get sanitised. His pride against adversity and his fuck you attitude was completely inspiring to the LGBTQ community and the countless kids and young people who realised that it’s okay to be gay thanks to George Michael.

Also the sax on Careless Whisper. I mean.

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am i black or white? am i straight or gay?

The 80’s were weird. Super weird. In peak Cold War paranoia, the ideals of masculinity (at least through the eyes of Hollywood) were the big buff dudes who wore sunglasses and threw grenades and bombs and stuff; your Arnold Schwarzenegger’s, Rambo’s, your typical white guy wearing a wifebeater and holding a gun. Meanwhile, black men were stereotypically portrayed as angry criminal thugs who would steal away white women and get everyone addicted to crack.

Photo of PRINCE

Enter Prince Rogers Nelson; Prince. One of his earliest gigs was opening for The Rolling Stones, a band who weren’t exactly strangers to blurring gender lines; Prince performed in full Prince attire – heels, lace, lycra, eyeliner, attitude – and he got fruit and bottles thrown at him. Of course. It’s fine for Mick Jagger to flaunt around in heeled boots, but for a black man to do it and take it up a notch? Apparently unacceptable. Despite this, Prince persevered with his race-bending gender-bending aesthetic to go on and be one of the most successful acts of the 80s.

In creating this futuristic persona of Prince (no last name necessary), Prince was allowed prince-performs-during-his-welcome-2-americato defy stereotypes of race and gender and just be himself; flamboyant, artistic and androgynous. Yet despite his refusal to conform to gender and race stereotypes, Prince became a sex symbol – and frankly, it’s not hard to see why. He was confident, he had swagger, he was completely different to anything else out there, and he was actively sexual. It could be argued that his transcendence of race and gender allowed him to be sexual without being threatening, but either way, he had a voice like velvet and was alluring in the strangest way. People were very into it.

Prince was a genius, not just in his aesthetic but musically. Sign O’ The Times is still one of the best albums I’ve ever heard, Purple Rain is essentially a perfect song, and he was one of the greatest guitar players to walk the earth. When people think of the greatest guitarists, the list is just a bunch of white male 70s guitarists and a token Jimi Hendrix, but Prince was talented enough to out-solo any of them:

I’ve seen this video about a million times and I am still completely gagged. Look how excited Dhani Harrison is! That lean off the stage! He threw the guitar up and it never landed! Where is it?! That was one of the coolest, sexiest things I’ve ever seen in my life and I’m pretty sure it’s all downhill from here. Finally, as someone who’s known to dress head to toe in purple (sometimes accidentally, sometimes not), Prince was an inspiration, and purple is the best colour.

and the stars looks very different today

In the summer of 2015 (simpler days), while the Boshemia babes were at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, on our last day we saw 1972: The Future of Sex, by The Wardrobe Ensemble; a devised theatre piece about sexuality in the 70s, scored to some of David Bowie’s greatest hits. L and I loved it so much, we saw it again this summer, a week before my med school finals. It was the perfect exploration of sexuality and gender in young people, and it was the perfect tribute to David Bowie.

There was always a weird air of sexuality to everything that David Bowie did – be it the alien androgyny of Ziggy Stardust, or the alluring leggings he wore in the 1986 film Labyrinth. In every instance, it wasn’t the typical ideals of gender and sexuality, but completely twisted on itself and turned into a completely different type of allure. In 1967, the UK had decriminalised homosexuality, the Stonewall riots in 1969 were a massive turning point for LGBTQ rights, and a few years later in 1972, when homophobia was the norm, David Bowie came out as gay. A few years later in 1976, he clarified his sexuality and came out as bisexual; in the interim, he’d release Hunky Dory and The Life and Times of Ziggy Stardust, both massive albums rife with gay slang and subtext. All this while wearing dresses, glitter and the most fantastic jumpsuits the world has ever seen.

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Bowie’s flamboyance paved the way for the likes of Elton John, T-Rex and Queen to embrace their own extravagance, and for the likes of the New Romantics, the New Wavers and even today’s pop stars to play around with gender norms, sexuality and societal expectations. His impact on the LGBTQ scene cannot be overstated; if a weirdo like David Bowie with his mismatched eyes and wonky teeth can be so confident and sexy, then so can anyone, regardless of gender and sexuality.

It’s hard to put his sheer genius into words; he was the god of reinvention, a musical and lyrical mastermind, and even managed to turn his death into a performance piece with the release of his latest album Blackstar a mere three days before his death. Almost a year later, the album still holds up as some of his finest work in decades, and will surely earn a spot on the Boshemia best of end of year retrospectives. I could practically write a thesis on how the man changed music, fashion, film and culture, but I’m very aware how long this piece is, so I need to start wrapping up soon.

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news guy wept when he told us earth was really dying

Seems weirdly prescient now doesn’t it? As these wonderful,genre-defying, gender bending men left us this year, sadly it looks like their message and impact has faded as toxic masculinity has reigned supreme. The United States is going to be run by a man who brags about sexual assault, has been actively misogynistic and disparaging to his female opponent, to the point of stalking her in the second debate and actively calling for her assassination (remember when we thought that was the worst it would get. Ha ha ha). Men and women all over the world are being taught that this is the way to go forward in life; by bullying, threatening, abusing and surrounding yourself with like-minded bullies and abusers, and the people who have been struggling to cope with the increasing diversity are basking in the glow of alt-right leaders Nazi’s in positions of power and Pepe memes. Unlike the above artists, the world can’t suddenly decide to reinvent itself, but we can learn from the terrible attitudes of 2016, call them out and learn from them.

Men, I’m talking directly to you. First of all, hi to all five men who read Boshemia, thanks for dropping by. Now onto serious business; do better. Toxic masculinity has reigned supreme in 2016 and you guys need to let go of this gross hyper-masculine culture that paves the way for sexual assault, mass shootings, police brutality, superiority, and the normalisation of a Trump presidency. Toxic hyper-masculinity values traits like aggression, dominance, and power and if you don’t think that’s completely gross then you need to read more of this blog.

Direct message for everyone in 2017; change begins at the smallest level. If you’re wondering about little things you can do; don’t fall for toxic masculinity and over competitiveness as the way to go forward. Yeah, it’s probably the fastest and easiest way to get ahead, but it’s not the right way. Learn from these icons of gender fuckery and sexuality – be brave and defiant, stand up for your rights and the rights of others, don’t let society get you down, and if it does get you down, put on your heels and eyeliner, tell society to shove it, and let these three artists be in the soundtrack to your rebellion.

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*Unrelated sidebar in which you guys will rightfully call me an old man, but why can’t modern chart topping popstars sing anymore? Like have you guys heard the radio recently? It sucks.**

**And yeah I know there’s tons of amazing modern music you just have to find it blah blah blah.

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