On Losing David Bowie, Prince And George Michael, The Men Who Upended Pop Masculinity New York Times cultural critic Wesley Morris joins Ari Shapiro to discuss how three departed stars — David Bowie, Prince and George Michael — helped change the meaning of manliness in pop culture.
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On The Men Who Rattled Pop's Gender Rules — And What It Means To Lose Them Now

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On The Men Who Rattled Pop's Gender Rules — And What It Means To Lose Them Now

On The Men Who Rattled Pop's Gender Rules — And What It Means To Lose Them Now

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Three of the musicians who died in 2016 redefined masculinity in pop culture.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S DANCE")

DAVID BOWIE: Let's dance.

SHAPIRO: We're talking about David Bowie, Prince and George Michael. Wesley Morris is a cultural critic for The New York Times, and he has been thinking about how these three artists changed the way we understand masculinity. Hi there, Wesley.

WESLEY MORRIS: Hi, Ari, how are you?

SHAPIRO: I'm great. Let's start with David Bowie.

MORRIS: OK.

SHAPIRO: He was the oldest of the three. He kind of paved the way in the 1970s. How do you think he changed our view of manliness?

MORRIS: Well, I mean, for one thing he was limber. He seemed very loose. He was what I imagined the people who might have tormented him or tormented kids like him would have called a sissy on the nice end. And I think that he was really interested in his femininity more than he was interested in his masculinity. He spent a lot of time creating these persona that were androgynous, they weren't from this planet.

SHAPIRO: Right. Well, I'm thinking, like, as much as he dissolved the border between male and female, he also kind of dissolved the border between human and alien, so.

MORRIS: Yeah, yeah. I mean, he made every aspect of what was normal about being human seem foreign.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ZIGGY STARDUST")

BOWIE: (Singing) Now, Ziggy played guitar, jamming good with Weird and Gilly and The Spiders from Mars.

MORRIS: I think that "Ziggy Stardust" period was probably the most obviously queer period that he performed it. I mean, he was interested in this makeup and this sort of - these platforms and this hair. And it was neither male, nor female. And I think that was what was so disconcerting about him, but also if you were a kid, was kind of weirdly exciting because these ideas of gender and masculinity and femininity are these acquired notions. And I think that if you're ignorant of what they signify, you see this person signifying none of it, and it kind of blows your mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANNA BE YOUR LOVER")

PRINCE: (Singing) That's all I'm living for, yeah. I didn't want to pressure you, baby. But all I ever wanted to do, I want to be your lover.

SHAPIRO: Prince took what David Bowie did and ran with it. He was 12 years younger than Bowie. And how would you describe the way he evolved from the version of masculinity that David Bowie presented?

MORRIS: It was incredibly sexual, right? This was a person who was explicitly interested in the pursuit of sex. Not only was he interested in acquiring it, he liked having it. He liked making sure the person he was having it with was happy.

SHAPIRO: And yet, he sang about it in this very falsetto voice that doesn't sound typically masculine at all.

MORRIS: No. No. And it has a tradition in popular music obviously, I mean, he's doing what people like Little Richard do.

SHAPIRO: Sure.

MORRIS: You know, I mean, he was the seducer, and he wasn't, like, doing the thing that a lot of, like, R&B artists were doing, like, (lowers voice) yeah, baby, you and me, we got something so special. So - right? - he doesn't - he didn't do...

SHAPIRO: Turn the lights low and, yeah, right.

MORRIS: Right. Right. No. I mean, he would - he doesn't dim the lights.

SHAPIRO: And yet, he's also doing it while wearing boa's, high heels, eyeliner, makeup. I mean...

MORRIS: Yes. Yes. And if not being a man in the way that we think of men, was it - was something that didn't hurt your art or it didn't hurt your sales, then why not continue to pursue it?

SHAPIRO: How defiant was it?

MORRIS: Well, the thing that I think about about the '80s in particular was just how a hyper-masculine we had become.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EYE OF THE TIGER")

SURVIVOR: (Singing) It's the eye of the tiger. It's the thrill of the fight, rising up to the challenge of our rival.

MORRIS: There was the burgeoning of the American action movie. Sylvester Stallone moving from "Rocky," not just to "Rambo" but to, like, things like "Cobra" and "Over The Top." This was a time when, like, Michael Douglas was the sexiest man alive at some point, you know.

SHAPIRO: And people who were gay, defying gender norms, were dying of AIDS.

MORRIS: Yes. And so you have this tension between straight culture and somebody like Prince, this person who is really queering the difference between these two. He was singing about heterosexual sex while looking anything but conventionally heterosexual.

SHAPIRO: How do you explain the success of Bowie and Prince and these other super-effeminate pop stars in an era of such hyper-masculinity?

MORRIS: Their songs were good.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAITH")

GEORGE MICHAEL: (Singing) Well, I guess it would be nice if I could touch your body. I know not everybody has got a body like you.

SHAPIRO: Let's get to the third member of this trifecta of musicians who exploded masculinity who died in 2016, and that is George Michael. What was he doing that was different from Bowie or Prince?

MORRIS: He seemed to be the person who was most clearly gay.

SHAPIRO: Well, he was. I mean, unlike like the other two, he was gay.

MORRIS: Right, but at the height of his popularity, he wasn't out.

SHAPIRO: Right.

MORRIS: But he was the person, who more than anybody else, if you had a gaydar, he set it off. He was on it. And...

SHAPIRO: That shot in the video for "Faith" that's focused on the seat of his jeans just swinging back and forth.

MORRIS: Well, that's, I mean, yeah, there's that.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MORRIS: And I just - I think that by the time the "Faith" video came around, and he - you know, he was - it was his first solo album. And this very sort of butch rockabilly thing that he went for was so different that it was arresting. And that video just completely eroticized him, I mean, the camera is rising up his body as he's standing and, like, moving around in this contraption that's beating him. It's great.

SHAPIRO: How standard was it at that time for a male body like that to be the object of the camera's gaze? Because it's so much more standard for the camera to gaze upon a gorgeous woman, especially in a music video.

MORRIS: Yes. I mean, where it was so much focused on the parts of his body and the things his body could do, like, wiggle. I mean, obviously the, like, the express train to Elvis is immediate. I think that the thing that he's doing is that you are allowed to look at this body in a way that you weren't allowed to look at Elvis's while he danced.

SHAPIRO: It's obviously a tragedy or coincidence of the calendar that all three of these artists died in 2016, but do you think that when you put the three of them together you see something about the evolution or maybe devolution of masculinity in pop music?

MORRIS: Yeah. I mean, to have that happen in a year in which we were re-debating the propriety of maleness with regard to women and excusing it as just the thing that men do.

SHAPIRO: You're talking about the presidential race, talk about sexual assault, things like that?

MORRIS: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. And I think that just looking at, like, what the coming administration is going to look like, it's going to be full of generals, men who have exerted power in this very traditional way. I think that we go through these waves in these periods. It's going to be really interesting to see what the next three or four years turns up in terms of how you might be able to trace some through line from people like your Princes and David Bowies and George Michaels to whatever is happening in music in two years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREEDOM! '90")

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Freedom.

MICHAEL: (Singing) I won't let you down.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Freedom.

SHAPIRO: Wesley Morris is a cultural critic for The New York Times. Thanks a lot.

MORRIS: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREEDOM! '90")

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) You got to give for what you take. Freedom.

MICHAEL: (Singing) I won't let you down.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Freedom.

MICHAEL: (Singing) So please don't give me up.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Freedom.

MICHAEL: (Singing) 'Cause I would really, really love to stick around. Heaven knows we sure had...

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