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Stardust’ memories: Bowie reconsidered

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Ohhhh, Bowie!
Illustration: Toby Thane Neighbors
Mark Dery

When did I stop wanting to be Bowie? Too recently for a Man of a Certain Age is the short but sufficiently mortifying answer.

Weirdly, there may be thousands like me—living fossils from the Class of ’72, the year The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars crash-landed in pop consciousness. How many late boomers came of age in front of a bathroom mirror, blow-drying their shag mullets into a lame approximation of Bowie’s Reluctant Astronette look from the cover of Pin Ups? How many fanboys struggled with libidinal dissonance as they watched Bowie on the rock-concert show Midnight Special, shimmying across the screen in a fishnet body stocking and a man-bra made of mannequin hands? To alienated teens who dreamed of escaping Middle America’s brain-dead mainstream culture, brought to you by Chuck Barris and Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the Captain & Tennille and Farrah Fawcett’s layered shag, Ziggy opened an interdimensional portal to a parallel universe of pansexual perversity, irony, and camp.

Despite Warhol, the Velvet Underground and Zappa’s We’re Only in It for the Money, the early ’70s were still the ’60s, historical periodization be damned. Pop-music critics were still carrying the flag for Countercultural Authenticity, which stood foursquare against technocratic soullessness and Ken-and-Barbie consumerism—the “white-collared conservative flashing down the street, pointing their plastic finger at me,” as Jimi sings in “If 6 was 9.”

Then along comes Bowie, a cum laude graduate of the Andy Warhol School of the Fabricated Self, sold on the idea of public image as never-ending performance and self-promotion as the highest art form. “I love plastic idols,” Andy says, in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. “I packaged a totally credible plastic rock star,” said Bowie, of Ziggy. “Much better than any sort of Monkees fabrication.” The Ziggy-era Bowie loves plastic. Better yet, he is plastic. He zips himself into PVC Flash Gordon jumpsuits so skin-tight they’d induce hypoxia in normal mortals. But Bowie, who comes on like some transgendered Klaatu, is Not of This World. If the awestruck whispers of his handlers are to be believed, the guy doesn’t even sweat. Even more bizarre, he does mime during his guitarist’s contractually mandated half-hour solo—spastic impressions of Marcel Marceau brining a turkey. Or maybe it’s Judy Garland undergoing a high colonic, who the hell knows? It’s French and it’s weird and your dad thinks the guy’s a simpering catamite, so it’s got to be cool. And if that doesn’t steam up your viewscreen, why, he’ll strip down to a see-through blouse and use his teeny tiny nipples to re-tweet X-rated messages from his home planet, Ganymede.

Glam rock drew the line: between the counterculture’s insistence on a politically correct earnestness and the new decade’s Oscar Wildean embrace of winking artifice; between the power-to-the-people populism of Woodstock-era rockers and the Me-Generation Nietzscheanism of Bowie singing, “Homo Sapiens have outgrown their use ... You gotta make way for the Homo Superior” (“Oh! You Pretty Things”); between folk rock’s ripped-from-the-headlines political “relevance” and glam’s escapist flight into retro styles (Bowie’s tongue-in-cheek appropriation of ’50s doo-wop in “Drive-In Saturday”) or shameless hedonism (Queen singer Freddie Mercury’s visions, in “Killer Queen,” of a high-rolling call girl who “keeps Moet et Chandon/In her pretty cabinet”). With Bowie as its gender-bent spokesmutant, glam marked the turning point between hippie and what would soon become punk, modernism and postmodernism.

“Ziggy Stardust could not have enjoyed the same impact in the sixties,” writes the music journalist Mark Spitz in his newly released Bowie: A Biography.

“He was not a utopian figure but rather the cracked and not entirely legit messiah that the debauched humankind of the seventies had come to deserve. He’s the ‘all right, this will do’ savior and the perfect antihero for the seventies because he is the embodiment of the dead sixties dream. Ziggy is the space-race anticlimax, Manson and Altamont and Nixon’s reelection and the breakup of the Beatles made sexy. Rock ‘n’ roll ecdysis is a crucial element of his appeal. Ziggy says to all those in pain, “You have failed as human beings, but it’s all right. We will succeed as slinky, jiving space insects. Let all the children boogie!”

The question that nags at Bowie: A Biography, or any Bowie biography for that matter, is: How did a snaggletoothed twink with a larval pallor, the physique of a stick insect and shaved eyebrows (for that transgendered mantid effect) became the improbable object of one-handed fantasies for millions of “boys and girls and everything in between,” as Ziggy photographer Mick Rock puts it?

Perhaps by channeling the zeitgeist, as Spitz suggests. But Spitz’s language—“messiah,” “savior”—is instructive: In the minds of his most devout fans, Bowie was the Starman foretold in the Ziggy song of the same name, come to liberate weirdoes everywhere—“the fat girls and the gay boys that didn’t fit in,” as Tony Zanetta, onetime president of Bowie’s management company MainMan, tells Spitz—from the have-a-nice-nightmare of ’70s suburbia and the think-alike, bong-alike conformity of its high-school cliques, where Led Zep fucking ruled, dude, and anyone who didn’t think so was a homo. How bogus is that?! Now pass the penis-shaped beer-bong, bro, and drop the needle on “Moby Dick.”

Of course, Bowie, more than any other rock star (except maybe Elvis), invites—demands?—deification. This has partly to do with the messianic sense of destiny that propelled him to rock godhood—a petted, precocious child’s sense of specialness, inflated to übermenschen extremes by the Nietzsche his older brother Terry introduced him to at a tender age. (“I always had a repulsive sort of need to be something more than human,” Bowie confesses in another bio, George Tremlett’s David Bowie: Living on the Brink. “I thought, ‘Fuck that, I want to be a Superman.’”) Becoming Ziggy, onstage and off, from ’72 through ’74, completed Bowie’s transfiguration into the martyred alien savior of his concept album’s title role. And his Svengali-like manager’s strategy of limiting media access to the divinity fixed the image of Bowie as aloof and otherworldly in the public mind.

Thus, every Bowie biography (and there’s a sagging shelf-load of them, as Spitz acknowledges) tends toward hagiography, especially when written by a Bowie votary, which Spitz unabashedly is (he prefers the term “Bowie-ist”). Nothing wrong with that: As fan-culture ethnographers like Henry Jenkins have shown, objectivity creates blind spots if you’re trying to make profound sense of media-age mystery cults; to truly understand the idiosyncratic, crisscrossing meanings fans map onto pop icons such as Madonna or mass-marketed myths such as the Harry Potter series, you’ve got to go native—become a participant-observer, to borrow a term from cultural anthropology.

What makes Bowie’s story fascinating is the dissonances between the plastic idol and the mousy-haired earthling who plays him. As the Thin White Duke of his 1976 Station to Station tour, Bowie was the brilliantined, clench-jawed embodiment of Weimar nightcrawler cool, a curlicue of smoke wisping off his ever-present Gitane. But the same man, in his earlier days, worshipped the leprously uncool Anthony Newley, a fixation immortalized in “The Laughing Gnome,” a chipmunk-voiced novelty song calculated to make even the staunchest Bowiephile cringe. The same Bowie who pushed the envelope of pop by using William S. Burroughs’s cut-up method of collage composition to generate lyrics like “you’re dancing where the dogs decay, defecating ecstasy” (“We are the Dead,” Diamond Dogs) would pass the schmaltz on Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, dueting with Der Bingle on “Little Drummer Boy.”

One of Spitz’s abiding themes in Bowie: A Biography is the tug-of-war in Bowie’s life and work between art and commerce, mainstream and avant-garde, bourgeois stability and cocaine-fueled days without sleep, trying to change the channels on his TV telekinetically: “Sometimes the friction produced brilliant chemistry, other times it led him too far from his better angels ...” Since Bowie’s ascent to megastardom in 1983 with Let’s Dance, though, he “would never be truly, authentically...freaky again.”

Now, Spitz argues, he is post-cool, having transcended the limits of pop stardom; the latest, and perhaps last, persona in the career-long series of Warholian moltings that has made him the patron saint of self re-invention is what Spitz calls “Post-Ambition Bowie”—financially secure, his artistic genius unquestioned by “yet another full decade’s worth of younger artists (from Moby and Goldie all the way up to TV on the Radio and the Arcade Fire).”

Of course, there are those in the Class of ’72 who will always prefer the slinky, jiving, space-insect model. “Now he gives people what he thinks will make them happy, and they’re yawning their heads off,” snipes Morrissey, in Bowie: A Biography. “He is no longer David Bowie at all.” Maybe. Or maybe he never was. Spitz quotes the music critic Simon Reynolds on “the circularity of glam, where fans grow up to be idols, having learned the art of posing from their idols.” Maybe Bowie is a set of mental spacetime coordinates anyone can inhabit, with the right attitude, some Red Hot Red hair dye and a little radioactive lipstick. Or, more conveniently, the fashion designer Keanan Duffty’s 2007 Bowie collection for the superstore Target. Noting that the Target line made the “sexual spaceman ... even more mainstream,” Spitz quotes Duffty’s sincere hope that his collection will help “people, fans and nonfans alike, to get in touch with their inner Bowie.”

But what does that mean at a moment when even Bowie has disowned his inner Bowie? If post-cool is the new, Bowie-sanctified cool, then Bowie, in a fittingly postmodern turn of events, is post-Bowie. What could be cooler?

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