In 2016, the world lost three musical legends and LGBT icons: David Bowie (1947-2016), Prince (1958-2016), and George Michael (1963-2016).
On January 10th, David Bowie died after a long battle with cancer. Bowie’s famed androgyny held a prominent place in the LGBT community; “he used his unconventional, ostentatious gender presentation to challenge what the mainstream public associated with virile cisgender men.” As Maya Oppenheim writes in the Independent: “Pushing the boundaries of what was and wasn’t acceptable, Bowie’s sexual ambiguity helped others gain the impetus to express themselves.”
Prince died on April 21st. Like Bowie, Prince defied all musical norms, social labels, gender codes, and sexual stereotypes. As Nathan Smith says in Out: “For many members of the queer community, Prince’s sheer persistent resistance to being restricted by language was an exciting and provocative feat and one through which they could channel their own frustrations and identity struggles.”
George Michael died on Christmas Day at the age of 53. In 1998, Michael came out as being gay and advocated strongly for AIDS prevention and gay rights. At a time when being gay was considered a “sin,” Michael’s openness served as a hopeful beacon to LGBT people who, themselves, were struggling to be free and proud of their identities. How should we remember George Michael? Lee Williscroft-Ferris argues that
George Michael represented a walking middle-finger-up in the faces of those right wing mouthpieces that would desexualize gay men, sanitizing our existence and barely concealing their disdain and, frequently, their outright disgust at the mere thought of gay men interacting sexually with one another.
One Takeaway Message
Music isn’t set off from the world, as too many musicians, music educators, and audience members would have us believe. Instead, as the eminent UC-Berkeley musicologist Richard Taruskin argues: “Music is in the world, doing worldly work.”
People do a serious disservice to activist artists of all kinds—or what we call artivists—when they attempt to sanitize or depoliticize musicians’ lives and legacies. Instead, let’s celebrate all three men as musical-social icons: extraordinary people who made major differences in the lives of LGBT individuals and communities worldwide.