David Bowie: Creating a Middle-Class Dream for a Working-Class Fan

I recently visited the David Bowie exhibition in Melbourne, Australia, and attended a two-day Bowie symposium. They provided plenty of time for nostalgia and opportunities to listen and sing along to Bowie songs but also to discuss Bowie’s cultural significance as an artist and innovator. I was struck, though, by how often I thought about class during the presentations. Two aspects of class became quite clear – one related to middle -class dreams for working-class teenagers and the other to the how the high cost of fandom affects working-class fans. What does it mean to be a fan who can’t afford the records, clothing, souvenirs, concert tickets, or hair cuts to properly follow their star?

David Bowie’s own class background is somewhat ambiguous. I’d suggest he was lower middle-class – the son of a white collar father and a mother who ‘married up’ (he certainly isn’t a ‘working-class hero’). But it isn’t Bowie’s life growing up in leafy Bromley as David Jones that is so significant. His entry into the bohemian world of art school and his knowledge of fine arts, theatre, literature, art music – in other words, his accumulation of cultural capital — is what interests me most.

When I first discovered Bowie I was a working-class girl living in public housing near an industrial area. When I was very young, the school principal told my mother that education wasn’t very important for the children destined to work in the local factories. Despite some excellent teachers along the way, the schools I attended didn’t encourage an interest in intellectual or artistic pursuits. We were advised to train for vocational occupations. But Bowie created a different dream for me. This dream involved art school and fine arts. I wanted to experience the bohemian life – to paint, write, live in a shared house with other like-minded creative people, and play with identity and performance (preferably not in northeast London where I grew up). In Bowie’s music I found references to many things I was intrigued by but didn’t understand. I didn’t have the cultural capital to decipher them or to recognise the influences in his music from the world of art. It is only since I gained formal education (and cultural capital) that I have been able to see these references at work. The desire for this bohemian life –a middle-class life– was strong. But this dream never eventuated. The reality of working-class life meant that art school didn’t happen, and the need to support myself in a non-bohemian way did, but I did maintain the interest in the arts that Bowie had created for me.

The class dimensions of music fandom have been acknowledged, usually with a focus on the popularity of certain artists with fans from particular class backgrounds. The connection between punk rock and working-class fans is well documented as are the political class dimensions of followers of artists such as Billy Bragg and so on. Not all fans want to follow their idol’s career path in a literal way. Many are content with emulating style and enjoying their idol’s creative output. But fandom requires resources – access to an artist’s body of work and the clothes and accessories needed to emulate their style is expensive.

The Bowie symposium included presentations on Bowie’s musical output, his on-stage performances, and his style. One session focused solely on Bowie’s hair. The majority of the presenters were fans, and many spoke of their experiences at concerts and of buying records and trying to copy his look. These kinds of experiences were out of reach to me. The Bowie music I listened to as a teenager was recorded from a cousin’s records on cheap cassettes. I played them on a much treasured mono tape recorder I’d been given as a gift. The idea of a concert ticket was a faraway fantasy, and I couldn’t afford to pay a hairdresser to give me a Bowie look. Posters, badges, fan club membership and other memorabilia all cost money. I could be resourceful sometimes – cutting out pictures of Bowie from the newspaper or old magazines in lieu of posters. I could afford the occasional badge (and I did make my own). My friends and I mixed our own hair bleaching concoction, and I gave myself some blonde bits (trying to be blonde 1980s Bowie). But I didn’t have the same detailed knowledge of Bowie’s albums and concerts and couldn’t achieve the same level of admired fandom as many of the other delegates.

The Bowie symposium brought home the ways in which the accumulation of cultural capital is so difficult for working-class people. And how dreams about the future are so affected by class position. My bohemian dream set me apart from my working-class cohort (being into David Bowie rather than the mainstream popular bands of the time made me ‘weird’). In a way, Bowie helped me to discover music that was in opposition to the mainstream, but it also set me up for a big disappointment when the reality of working-class life hit and art school dreams made way for retail work. And this is not an experience confined to the 1970s or 1980s. Recent discussions have suggested that in the UK, working-class people are much less likely than their middle-class counterparts to train in the performing arts. The world of film, theatre, and (increasingly) popular music is dominated by middle-class, privately educated artists. The combined effects of lack of cultural capital and the resources needed to fund artistic ventures limits the ability of working-class kids to fulfil their bohemian dreams.

When so much of subcultural membership is tied to consumption, I wonder how many other fans out there from working-class families have to sit on the sidelines and watch others love their idols in ways they can’t. If my fandom of Bowie is in question, the answer is because of class.

Sarah Attfield


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4 Responses to David Bowie: Creating a Middle-Class Dream for a Working-Class Fan

  1. Colum Paget says:

    This is true across the cultural board (my own experiences come from the UK/US sci-fi community) though it comes in different guises. In many ways ‘cultural capital’ is something expliticly designed to block people from working class backgrounds. Consider political language: a lot of the so-called ‘politics’ of the middle class left these days is really just shibboleths designed to identify outsiders, that’s one reason why the language keeps changing. If you didn’t move in the right circles you’re unlikely to have encountered phrases like “person of color” (this one seems to be hitting the mainstream now, but a few years back I found that “people of color” of my aquaintance didn’t know it, because they were from a working-class background like me, and they’d look at me like I was speaking klingon if I used the phrase). Thus you’ll make all kinds of ‘mistakes’ and be crucified for them. In competitive environments where someone is out to raise their profile above others the analysis of language is used very heavily to denounce and slander one’s rivals, and a working class person is always going to be the victim in this situation. They lack the knowledge of newspeak and theory, and also lack the right connections of people who will side with them in what is, to be frank, social warfare. Finally, among much of the new left, you have to accept the claim that class no longer exists and everything is race and gender now, and that you’re “privileged”. Someone from a working-class background is unlikely to go along with that, and this will be the means to take them down. They can only hope to survive in such an environment if they give up their politics and class identity, and even then they’ll always be a second-class citizen to those well versed in the political language and games of the community. You’ll never really be accepted.


  2. Roy W Wilson says:

    Sarah, I very much enjoyed your piece. It reminded me of my youth when I wore “toad-stomper” boots like my idol Bob Dylan. Though I relished his critique of upper- and middle-class life styles and values, it didn’t dawn on me at the time that he himself was achieving something akin to both. In short, he was becoming the eccentric rich person who, like the give-a-shit poor person, does pretty much what they like without fear (but for different reasons).

    I now think that, without realizing it, I had already bought into a consumerist society in which the acquisition of cultural capital of various stripes) has become an imperative for nearly all. .


    • Jack Labusch says:

      Roy, any thoughts on markets in popular music? Sarah, ditto.

      (My knowledge is newspaper-quality only. I used to be an amateur musician. As a kid, I was fascinated by Jimi Hendrix going from club gigs in NYC to stardom very quickly in Europe with the right manager who actually encouraged his experimentalism. Contrast Journey, which started as prog jazz-rock, and at the urging of their record company, went to a power ballad band that filled stadiums.}


  3. Jack Labusch says:

    Sarah, thanks for noticing that rock ‘n’ roll fandom ain’t cheap. I don’t know what you can say about popular entertainers who may be too costly to see in person.

    I agree that Bowie’s career is something of a testimony to innovativeness and stamina. Much of it fell flat for me, but I’m thinking of Mike Garson’s avant-garde piano solo in “Aladdin Sane” breaking up Bowie’s lounge singing, or, Bowie’s fey, punkish voice against Mick Ronson’s Bo Diddley riff in “Panic in Detroit”.

    For a mash-up of cultural references, Sarah, you may want to try Tonio K.”s (yup) “The Funky Western Civilization”, available on You Tube. There’s Motown, Dada, probably more in this late 1970s recording.


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