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The Wit of Ziggy

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The Wit of Ziggy

Not since Little Richard had audiences witnessed a rock performer so audaciously using style and gesture as signifiers of identity subversion.

An early shot across the bow came in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1971, where he cheekily introduced himself, saying, “Tell your readers that they can make up their minds about me… when I’m found in bed with Raquel Welch’s husband” (Qtd. in Stevenson, Nick. David Bowie: Fame, Sound and Vision. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2006. 45). Later, he would campaign for Ziggy by telling Melody Maker’s Michael Watts that he (or was it Ziggy?) was bisexual (Paytress 5).

In 1993, however, Bowie would distance himself from this media revelation, declaring that he had actually always been a “closet heterosexual” (David Bowie Wikipedia15 March, 2010.) Whether truth or trick, such then-shocking disclosures have had more significant short and long-term ramifications.  As Cagle opines, “By openly announcing his bisexuality and by presenting androgynous images both on and off the stage, Bowie helped to advance subversive propositions that eventually worked toward “sexualizing” glitter [or glam] in a manner that was uncommon to rock and roll” (97).  Furthermore, one can imagine that somewhere, someplace, Morrissey, Boy George, and Madonna were all taking note of the crafty confessions of Bowie/Ziggy, in preparation for their own future “subversive propositions”. 

The punk and new romantic movements of the late-‘70s and early-‘80s made the concept of gender-bending a rock image norm rather than an exception, such that today representations that stray from standard heterosexuality or veer into androgynous or cross-gender territory are greeted as little more than mildly titillating. This was not the circumstance, however, when Bowie unveiled the strutting peacock Ziggy Stardust. 

Not since Little Richard had audiences witnessed a rock performer so audaciously using style and gesture as signifiers of identity subversion. As with Richard, Bowie/Ziggy presented an image of a sexual “other” at a time when mainstream adult society was largely intolerant and/or scornful of anyone transgressing conventional heterosexual conduct. Yet—and as in Richard’s era, too—late-‘60s /early-‘70s Britain was also a time when young people were starting to question and resist the pervasive prejudices and stereotypes that had systematically kept non-heterosexuals locked securely in their closets.

In his book on English humor, A National Joke, Andy Medhurst discusses the ways in which late-‘60s society, particularly via its TV comedy, had perpetuated the stereotype of non-heterosexual men as sexless caricatures, as weak “queens”, and essentially as failures of men. At the same time, though, the Stonewall uprising of 1969 had rallied young gay activists, in turn sparking the formation of London’s Gay Liberation Front, which published its manifesto for rights in 1971. Contemporaneously, Britain also softened its draconian measures of prosecutorial discrimination against homosexuals by passing the Sexual Offences Act in 1967, which partially decriminalized male homosexuality. From the fissures of these developments concerning sexual identity rights emerged David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust.

Bowie countered the stereotypes of the day by injecting empowerment, strength, and confidence into his androgynous Ziggy construction. He also provided provocation, as revealed in Mick Rock’s famous photograph of Ziggy/Bowie simulating fellatio on Mick Ronson on-stage in 1972, an image the Bowie camp were far from reticent in disseminating. Mark Paytress explains the broader significance of such shock-humor gestures thus: “Bowie made homosexuality attractive, liberating it from the pantomime-dame routine and the limp-wristed comic stereotype and investing it with rock star chic” (96).

Taking his gestures, gyrations, and jibes “too far”, Bowie drew from the sensibility of camp, an increasingly in-vogue technique that had long been the subversive humor of choice within the gay in-crowd. Characterized by artifice and exaggeration, camp, as Susan Sontag has pointed out, courts the “flamboyant” and “sees everything in quotation marks”.  Her revelatory 1964 essay, “Notes on ‘Camp’”, argues that the androgyne is one of the premier images of camp, and that “’It’s too much’, ‘It’s too fantastic’, ‘It’s not to be believed’, are the standard phrases of camp enthusiasm” (Sontag, Susan.  “Notes on ‘Camp’” 1964). 

Such was the wit of Ziggy. He did not critique social prejudices with anger or assault; he merely undermined them with a spectacular display of detached but affected theatricality. Van Cagle adds that the legacy of Ziggy’s time on earth can be seen in the sexually re-oriented media designations he left in his wake: gay rock, bisexual rock, glam rock, glitter rock, camp rock, theatrical rock.

The outsider has always been the central subject of David Bowie’s oeuvre, and with the Ziggy Stardust character he found his most charismatic, appealing, and far-reaching alien representative. As much as one might justifiably argue that Ziggy opened the door for kids of non-heterosexual orientations to discover their own worlds and beyond, so too, did he also empower the expression of many more besides who have felt like outsiders. 

Furthermore, by using Ziggy as a tool of parody and camp humor, Bowie tampered with the rusty machinery of both rock culture and the broader society, symbolically throwing a spanner into their works. The word “revolutionary” is often evoked too easily in assessing artistry, yet modern youth cultural history has revealed to us two very distinct musical eras: pre-Ziggy and post-Ziggy. When one considers how much and how many of the artists of that “post” period have been influenced, inspired, and affected by the grand subversions of Bowie/Ziggy, “revolutionary” is surely the only appropriate designation.

Born in Manchester and raised east of London, Iain Ellis spent his formative years playing, performing, and consuming a heavy diet of punk rock music and football. In 1986, the young man went west to find his dreams in Bowling Green, Ohio. Instead, he picked up a PhD in American Culture Studies, writing his dissertation on 1980s American Punk Culture. In 2000, he traveled further west, settling in Lawrence, Kansas, where he currently teaches English at the University of Kansas and performs in his band The Leotards. You may also enjoy his books, Rebels Wit Attitude: Subversive Rock Humorists and Brit Wits: A History of British Rock Humor.

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