He Took It All Too Far: David Bowie’s “Ziggy” Years, 1971-1973

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.

The Wit of Ziggy

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.