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He Took It All Too Far: David Bowie's "Ziggy" Years, 1971-1973

At a time when the rock heroes of the era embodied macho appeal and dressed down in jeans and T-shirts, Bowie’s Ziggy struck an incongruous chord while challenging gender identifications.

From February 1971, when he first outlined the Ziggy Stardust concept while on tour in the US, until July 1973, when he announced his doppelganger’s death at the close of a concert at London’s Hammersmith Odeon, David Bowie developed and inhabited one of the most legendary alter-ego personas in the history of rock music. Crafted as a composite caricature from various real and imagined sources, Ziggy was more than just another role for his creator, and much more than mere theatrical entertainment for his admirers.

Whether perceived in terms of music or image, Bowie’s Ziggy provided a nail in the coffin to any lingering sixties notions of rock authenticity. As critic Ken Tucker has noted, “In the face of the hippy era’s sincerity, intimacy, and generosity, Bowie presented irony, distance, and self-absorption” (Ed Ward et al, eds. Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986. 489). Perhaps more significantly, Ziggy became an outsider role model for fellow outsiders and an alien(ated) hero to the alienated, particularly to those young people struggling with their own sexual and gender identities and/or with the social stereotypes that confined them. On both of these subversive fronts, Bowie employed parody and camp as his weapons of humor, using each to push his provocative representations beyond the accepted norms of society and the prevailing rock culture. In the process, Ziggy Stardust became an iconic revolutionary in both mission and accomplishment.

As early as April 1971, Bowie was in the process of publicly sketching a manifesto of rock that would soon be fleshed out in the form of Ziggy. Speaking to John Mendelsohn of Rolling Stone, he opined on the rock medium, “I think it should be tarted up, made into a prostitute, a parody of itself. It should be the clown, the Pierrot medium” (Qtd. in Paytress, Mark. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars: David Bowie. New York: Schirmer Books, 1998. 54). Previously, Bowie had “tarted” himself up by sporting a “man’s dress” for the cover of his 1970 album, The Man Who Sold the World; furthermore, his interest in gender-bending lyrical play existed even earlier, in late sixties songs like “She’s Got Medals” (1967) and “Unwashed and Slightly Dazed” (1969).

With the release of Hunky Dory in December 1971, one witnesses Bowie inching closer to his Ziggy ambitions, at least in certain songs. The opener, “Changes", provides a statement of intent, complete with this exclamatory warning of his imminent rise: “Look out you rock ‘n’ rollers!” Tto the parent generation and the rock old guard, he proclaims, “These children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds / Are immune to your consultations, they’re quite aware of what they’re going through”, rallying alienated youth into pre-Ziggy subcultural formation.

The same theme is given a more explicit gender/sexual dimension on the following song, “Oh! You Pretty Things”, where Bowie playfully puns in the line, “Gotta make way for the Homo Superior”, while suggesting that “they’re the start of the coming race”. Assuming his role as the pied piper of the “pretty things”, Bowie exploits the generation gap while siding with the youth culture, inciting with such coy provocations as “don’t you know you’re driving your mamas and papas insane?”

These Hunky Dory songs might be seen as precursor practice runs for the Ziggy Stardust alien that was to descend—like a “leper messiah”—upon planet rock a few months later. Bowie had frequently written and sung “in character” and often through caricatures in previous songs, but never before Ziggy had he given visual manifestation to his narrative voices. With Ziggy, he did so in spectacular fashion, creating a mock rock god with flaming red hair and lipstick, satin costumes, and knee-high boxing boots, all spattered with sprinklings of glitter. At a time when the rock heroes of the era — Robert Plant, Roger Daltrey etc. — embodied macho appeal and dressed down in jeans and T-shirts, Bowie’s Ziggy struck an incongruous chord while challenging the conventional gender identifications and imaging of the era.

A veritable space oddity, Ziggy was actually as much an amalgam of existing (or past) rock icons as he was a product of Bowie’s subversive imagination. Indeed, Bowie drew from a cast of real-life self-destructive burn-outs, theatrical extremists, and deluded madmen for inspiration. Fifties British rocker and Gene Vincent wannabe, Vince Taylor, was a primary source, his crazed messianic complex serving Bowie’s “rock god” ideal. Jimi Hendrix (“he played it left hand”) and Iggy Pop (“well hung”) were also part of the composite, both reflected in Ziggy’s predilection to take it “all too far”.

Real rock primitives and identifiable as rock types, these figures embodied extremes and excesses of self-parody proportions, thus providing Bowie with the base ingredients to craft his own parody version of the quintessential self-destructive rock star. Ironically, by acting out this mythology in the form of the archetypal but artificial rock star (Ziggy) and group (the Spiders from Mars), Bowie simultaneously debunked, deconstructed, and deflated the very grandiose rock mythology he was exaggeratedly manifesting.

Just as the Ziggy persona alluded to classic rock iconography while simultaneously subverting it through injections of stylized androgyny and femininity, so too did the accompanying music function similarly. Since The Man Who Sold the World Bowie had been borrowing from the distinctive guitar-dirge riffing of the-then incipient genres of heavy metal and American underground rock, but on Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars this pastiche morphed into a more nuanced sound. Here, Mick Ronson’s crunching guitar rounded into faster, catchier riffs, while the song structures tightened into three-minute pop-rock anthems.

As the classic, progressive, and art rockers of the era constructed ambitious, extended suites that served as antidotes to the bubblegum pop dominating the charts, Bowie’s glam nuggets seemed to bridge this dichotomy, breaking the divide that had long been sacrosanct within the “authentic” rock community. Instead of eschewing the pop world, Bowie’s new sound embraced it, along with the star imagery and commercial appeal that accompanied it. Whereas the rock of the age was codified by masculinity and musical art, pop music registered as feminine and as visually gimmicky. By determining that Ziggy should embody both, Bowie not only helped destroy '60s rock ideals, but he also helped foster—alongside Marc Bolan and other co-conspirators—a new gender-bending and genre-bending rock form.

Before long, British stages and TV programs were littered with glitter, as a new breed of bedazzled pop stars—Sweet, Gary Glitter, Suzy Quatro, Alvin Stardust, Mott the Hoople, Mud—carried the glam torch to the top of the pop charts. Seemingly overnight, the conventional counter-culture became but a heady, distant dream.

Although the sound and style of Ziggy had their roots and inspirations in pre-existing rock forms, icons, and archetypes, the overall aesthetic and subversive impetus came from beyond musical culture, particularly from artist Andy Warhol. As Warhol had done within the art world—closing the gap between art and commerce, questioning notions of value and authenticity—so Bowie did within rock music culture. “An art form of indifference”, Bowie had once called rock, echoing the “indifferent” mockery Warhol had shown to the art world via his banal silk-screened subjects (Tremlett, George. The David Bowie Story. New York: Warner, 1975. 110-111).

Fame, celebrity, and the very concept of art were exposed as myths and mechanisms of institutional process by Bowie/Ziggy, just as they had been by Warhol. If, as critic Van Cagle postulates, “glitter” was “the rock and roll equivalent to pop art”, Ziggy Stardust spoke to and about modern culture in the same way that Warhol’s multiple Marilyn and Elvis prints had done (Cagle, Van M. Reconstructing Pop/Subculture: Art, Rock, and Andy Warhol. (Thousand Oaks, California: Sage, 1995. 100). As recompense to his conceptual guru, Bowie included the tribute song “Andy Warhol” on Hunky Dory, though on hearing it performed for him, Warhol was apparently less impressed with the song’s wry lyrics than with the striking shoes that Bowie was sporting at the time.

With Ziggy came world-wide success and scrutiny, and nowhere were Bowie’s (or Ziggy’s?) playful attitudes to his own new-found media celebrity more apparent than in his engagement with that very media. From Warhol he had learnt that the roles of the provocateur and trickster need not be restricted to one’s artistic practices; indeed, in the public sphere one’s public image could be an art form in itself. Ever since (and even before) he had taken to wearing his “man’s dress” to The Man Who Sold the World interviews, Bowie had been cognizant of the potency and potential of media manipulation and promotion. With Ziggy, though, he made comprehensive use of the media, using it as a conveyor belt to disseminate the subversive features of his adopted persona.

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