David Bowie’s iconic song “John, I’m Only Dancing” has been hailed as a bisexual anthem since its release way back in 1972.
This guitar-driven glam rock track, originally a non-album single, captivated audiences with its catchy melody and enigmatic lyrics. While its meaning may be open to interpretation, many listeners have perceived it as addressing a same-sex relationship.
The inspiration behind “John, I’m Only Dancing” reportedly stems from a personal incident involving Bowie, his then-wife Angie, and his former drummer John Cambridge.
The lyrics convey a message from the narrator to his lover, reassuring them not to worry about his interactions with another woman because he is “only dancing” with her. Although the meaning remains ambiguous and subject to individual understanding, many people have widely interpreted the song as an exploration of a gay relationship.
In a 1979 interview with Mavis Nicholson on Afternoon Plus, Bowie states that he is bisexual in an exchange that stands as a perfect archetypal example of how society deals with anyone that isn’t straight or gay.
While some critics argue that the song does not explicitly support the claim of being a gay anthem, comparing it to Bowie’s other tracks such as “Queen Bitch” and “Suffragette City,” biographer Nicholas Pegg suggests that the narrator in “John, I’m Only Dancing” could just as easily be a straight man reassuring the girl’s lover. The song’s ambiguous nature allows for multiple interpretations and adds to its intrigue.
Bowie’s public image during that time was characterized by his flamboyant and androgynous appearance, which challenged societal norms. He embraced his sexuality with a sly playfulness, declaring, “I’m gay, and always have been, even when I was David Jones.” This statement, made during the aforementioned Melody Maker interview, gained significant attention at that time.
Musically, “John, I’m Only Dancing” showcases the talents of Bowie’s backing band, the Spiders from Mars. Guitarist Mick Ronson delivers a powerful riff that pays homage to Eddie Cochran, while his electrifying solo leaves a lasting impact.
The rhythm section, consisting of drummer Woody Woodmansey and bassist Trevor Bolder, adds depth and energy to the song, with Bolder’s bassline serving as one of its defining features.
The track was recorded on June 26, 1972, and released in September of that year. It achieved success in the UK, reaching number 12 on the charts; however, RCA, Bowie’s record label, decided not to release it in the United States due to the suggestive nature of the lyrics.
Whichever way you interpret it, you can’t deny “John, I’m Only Dancing” caused many conversations during a hush-hush era. It holds a special place in the hearts of Bowie’s queer fans, as it symbolizes a kinship between the artist and the LGBTQ+ community.
Bowie was already a queer idol for the scene at the time due to his flamboyant form of expression, but his seemingly openness about his own sexuality provided a clear sense of acceptance and representation.
Regardless of whether Bowie’s motives were solely for spectacle or financial gain, his declaration of bisexuality allowed others to feel more comfortable in their own skin, and as gay music legend Tom Robinson stated, “For gay musicians, Bowie was seismic. To hell with whether he disowned us later.”