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Why did David Bowie refuse his knighthood?


David Bowie’s debut was in 1967 and presented a young impressionable Bowie at the time, who was enmeshed in the swinging 1960s culture of London. His eponymous debut was an interesting amalgamation of whimsy, theatre and innocence. Songs like ‘Love You Till Tuesday’, ‘Rubber Band’ and ‘Uncle Arthur’ were, at best, cute. But it did showcase Bowie’s burgeoning ability to create characters in his songs, which in regards to this time, looks better in retrospect.

His second record is also self-titled but also known as Space Oddity, named after the single for the record which got Bowie his first real national attention. This established Bowie further along into his career as a shape-shifter, something that he would master by the end of the 1970s. Later, Bowie won the Ivor Novello award for ‘Space Oddity’, a song he wrote inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 science fiction masterpiece film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

“I think I was quite happy to buy into the idea of reinvention up until the beginning of the ’80s, really,” Bowie said to Jeremy Paxman in his interview with him for BBC. Bowie continued to describe his relationship towards his chameleonic ability: “It came about, I think more than anything else that when I was a teenager, I had it in my mind that I would be a creator of musicals.

“I sincerely wanted to write musicals, for the West End, for Broadway. I didn’t see much further than that.” Prior to Bowie creating his brilliant musical character Ziggy Stardust, he wanted to write songs for others. “I had the idea in my head that people would do my songs, and I was not a natural performer. I didn’t feel at ease on stage, ever,” he explained.

Adding, “I felt really comfortable going on stage as someone else. But there was a point in the late ’70s where the characters were getting in the way of myself as a writer and I endeavoured to kill them off and start writing for me, as just a singer-songwriter.”

In 1983, Bowie would once again outdo himself by creating the ultimate art-dance record and got him his long-needed commercial hit, Let’s Dance. While Bowie has experienced considerable success leading up to this, it was this album that truly skyrocketed the starman into the upper-echelons.

He continued making records through to the 1990s and into the 2000s, by which point, the British establishment recognised Bowie for his life’s work as an ever-evolving artist, who consistently produced groundbreaking music.

Why did David Bowie refuse his knighthood?

Bowie was awarded a CBE in 2000 and a Knighthood in 2003 by the Queen, which he refused both, saying: “I would never have any intention of accepting anything like that.”

He added: “I seriously don’t know what it’s for. It’s not what I spent my life working for.”

And just like that, Bowie reaffirmed his position as one of the people, for the people.

David Bowie, unlike Paul McCartney, rejected the honour. (Credit: Alamy)

Was David Bowie anti-establishment?

Bowie was also asked if he was anti-monarchy, to which Bowie replied: “I’d only have a serious answer to that if I was living in this country.” Bowie was living in the States at the time, and it was in America that he died in 2016, according to BBC.

For the most part, David Bowie never really used music as a vehicle for political beliefs; he was very much apolitical as far as in the public sphere. Had Bowie taken one side or another in politics, he would not have been able to be the outsider and the observer, which is what he was. 

If anything, Bowie’s androgyny, specifically in his glam-rock days, was a very loud political statement in gender fluidity, although it is doubtful if Bowie intended it to be that. 

Although considering that he refused both a CBE and a knighthood, Bowie was aware of the implication of accepting an order of the British Empire. Bowie did not believe in elitism and as an artist, believed that art was for everyone. 

Bowie famously decided to leave the UK to live in the US. (Credit: Alamy)

What’s the difference between a CBE and a knighthood?

There are different ranking awards given out of the British Empire (that’s the ‘BE’ part). The Queen will award these medals of honour to various figures who have achieved sustained groundbreaking contributions to the nation or internationally.

A CBE (Commander of the British Empire) is the highest order one can get before receiving a KBE or DBE. These latter two allow the recipient to use a ‘sir’ or ‘dame’ in front of their names – it is a ‘knighthood’ for intents and purposes.

After refusing a CBE in 2000, the Monarchy sent Bowie a KBE in 2003, but still refused. Perhaps the Monarchy thought that Bowie was not satisfied with a CBE, so decided to up the stakes – to no avail.

David Bowie was never interested in official titles. (Credit: Alamy)

Who else was awarded a knighthood?

In the same year that Bowie was offered a knighthood, Mick Jagger was awarded one as well – in Jagger’s case, he accepted it, however. The Monarchy only offers two knighthoods a year. 

On Jagger accepting the award, Bowie commented: “It’s not my place to make a judgment on Jagger, it’s his decision. But it’s just not for me.”

In 1997, Paul McCartney’s membership in the British Empire was promoted to Knighthood. 

In October of 1965, The Beatles received an MBE (Member of the British Empire) which is the lowest ranking order of the British Empire but still considered an exceptional honour.

Other rock artists who have received a knighthood include, Sir Elton John, Sir Rod Stewart, Sir Van Morrison and other surviving Beatle, Sir Ringo Starr. Sir Ray Davies, Bono, and the late Sir George Martin are on the list too.