Released: 27 April 1979
David Bowie: vocals, guitar
Adrian Belew: guitar
Tony Visconti: bass guitar, vocals
Brian Eno: piano
Simon House: violin
Carlos Alomar: drums
The lead single from David Bowie’s Lodger album, ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ was infamous for its promotional video, in which he appeared in drag as three backing singers.
Bowie was, of course, no stranger to cross-dressing and androgyny. Indeed, his early fame was built upon not just his music, but also the inclusivity his songs gave to society’s outsiders.
There is, however, more to the lyrics than just a celebration of masculinity. With lyrics such as “Heaven loves ya/The clouds part for ya/Nothing stands in your way,” Bowie appeared, at least on the surface, to be approvingly assessing male privilege, before such a notion had reached the mainstream. “Luck just kissed you hello, when you’re a boy…”
Bowie certainly wasn’t prone to gloating over discrimination or entitlement, and his decision to follow the song with ‘Repetition’ on Lodger may have been intended to underscore his discomfort with gender inequality. It appears likely that, in ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, Bowie wished to poke fun at locker room machismo rather than laud it.
Two decades after the song’s release, Bowie was interviewed by his wife Iman for the Fall 2000 edition of Bust, selecting questions submitted by the magazine. Although he shied away from being labelled a feminist, he did stress his belief in gender equality, and also downplayed any triumphalism in ‘Boys Keep Swinging’:
What does the word ‘feminism’ mean to you?
Bowie: Not too much anymore, I’m afraid. I’ve always had immense problems with “movements” or indeed, anything that can be put in quotes. Whatever the current manifesto, the personal definition is always subjective, which is, at the core, the greater reality. In general, I suppose, I find it intensely offensive to see women treated as chattel or appendages. I cannot think of a situation where a woman could not do an equal if not better job than a man. Possibly, a situation requiring only brute strength may be the exception, but here again, a woman would be smart enough to organize the right person for the job. In that singular case, probably a man.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Bowie: No. I’m stubbornly a nothing-ist. ists and isms irk me. It’s a British trait, I fear. We have a traditionally ambivalent outlook on social movements of any kind. But as with all ambivalence it has produced a kind of schizoid overview. A generous acceptance of eccentricity and, at times, an overbearing need to not stand out as being different. A complete understanding of the individual to command his or her own freedom yet a crushing failure to produce a jolly good revolution, even with Tom Paine at the helm.
In “When You’re a Boy” you sang about the glory of being young and male. Do you think there is a similar glory to being young and female?
Bowie: The glory in that song was ironic. I do not feel that there is anything remotely glorious about being either male or female. I was merely playing on the idea of the colonization of a gender.
Is it better to be one or the other?
Bowie: That is, in my opinion, an absurd question.