3. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
In the beginning of the seventies, David Bowie felt that the road to Heaven is suddenly blocked. In the sixties, the Beatles’ years, it felt like new ecstatic experience will keep on arriving and you’ll be able to build paradises around them and dwell in them until they dissipate, but now they suddenly stopped coming. At first rock’n’roll was like a never-ending party, but now it became rather dull. In his first albums, Bowie was a sensitive poet who sang about this conundrum in different ways, but did not try to find solutions. His art only reflected the situation, sometimes directly and sometimes in an ironic and theatric way in which he would assume a character of a man that is still stuck in the old logic and thinks what he does will get him to heaven, but we as listeners understand that he’s delusional. A big part of his criticism was aimed at the revolutionary rock of the late sixties, which adopted the Modern logic that aspires to create a perfect society in the future, and he showed that this logic leads to oblivion. But gradually, we hear his albums trying to do something else: is it possible to form a new logic, one that can get us back to heaven?
Bowie’s explorations into the history of rock’n’roll and pop culture led him to a number of conclusions. First of all, he realized that every truth is temporary. Reality is perpetually changing, there is nothing that is stable and permanent, and anyone who wants to live in the light of truth must therefore change along with it. Every period in time has its own truth, and to be happy one should find that truth, live in its light for as long as it is still the truth, and ditch it when it ceases to be the truth. What is the truth, then? The truth is that part in you that cannot express itself in your outer identity because you do not know how to express it – your culture does not have the concepts that enable you to articulate these inner sensibilities. How can they be expressed, then? This was Bowie’s great illumination: to express your inner truth, you need to converge with something that is alien to your culture and yet enchants you. When you unite with something that negates your current logic it results in the shattering of your identity, and then all that is left is the new fusion that you’ve created, which becomes your new truth and your new identity. This identity is boundless, homogenous, and can develop in many directions, granting that your existence will be ecstatic and joyful. Moreover, it provides an outlet for anyone who has the same sensibilities as yours, and then they adopt the new identity and you all come together in a loving unity and create a paradise.
Armed with these insights, Bowie set out to create the identity that will express them. Whereas the theatrical identities he created in the past existed only within the albums and only for one track in them, now he intended to create an identity that will be identified with him in reality as well and tell its story over an entire album. Moreover, the album was supposed to be a reflection of reality, reflection of what this character will do. The character, as mentioned, was supposed to be someone who is expressing things that are alien to the prevailing logic, so Bowie decided it will be an alien that comes from Mars. His band, which until now was a regular backup band, will henceforth be called the Spiders from Mars.
Again, it is not enough for the identity to be alien – as alien as it is, it must also have something enchanting that will appeal to the sensibilities of the kids who feel alienated to their current identity. Bowie began looking for aliens of this type, and one of the first things to present themselves to him was the movie A Clockwork Orange that came out at the end of 1971. The hooligan gang that are the protagonists of the movie was shocking and against any rules of decency and morality, and yet there was something about their aesthetic and style that was cool and exciting to the youth. Bowie cut his hair short like the Droogies in the movie (until then he had long hair according to the Hippie fashion ruling the pop world) and like them he adopted boots as part of his new wardrobe. His idea was to make him and his band look similar to Alex and his gang in the movie, minus the violent aspect. In this identity he appeared on TV in February 1972 and sang a new song, which was destined to become the opening track of his upcoming album. The song ‘Five Years’ throws us straight into a new reality, describing our world at the moment that we learn that it has only five years left. Meaning, that the Modern logic, the logic that determines that we must dedicate ourselves to progressing towards a better future, has lost all meaning. The plot of the album takes place in a world that has no future, and we must find our happiness in the here and now.
Another alien that Bowie appropriated was stardom. The star system, which characterized Hollywood and the music industry, was hated by Hippie logic. Hippies wanted to express inner truths, and stars seemed to them like a manifestation of fake exteriority. Why did they perceive it that way? Because the Hippies were still in the yoke of the old logic that said that truth is eternal and permanent, and since our exterior changes it cannot be the truth. Our inner world, the “soul”, was conversely seen as permanent and therefore real, and the Hippies required music that will express the soul. But Bowie, as mentioned, realized that truth is changing and our inner world is also changing, and therefore you can externalize this interiority and create an outside identity that will constitute a truth. The star, whose image is always artificially created, was for him a model of this process. While Hippie rockers presumed to elude the game of pop stardom, Bowie aspired to construct himself as the biggest and shiniest pop star of them all, as someone whose very essence is made of stardust. His new identity was therefore called Ziggy Stardust, and had a style that emanated maximum glamour. This style, that combined science fiction with glamour, became known as glam rock.
And there was another thing about glam. Bowie’s main inspiration was the underground gay culture, which was then beginning to surface. It had a few things that attracted him intellectually. First, their campy style perfectly matched the glamorous style he wanted to adopt, and he acquired the help of gay fashion designers to assemble Ziggy’s wardrobe. Secondly, their campy irony suited Ziggy and the Spiders, who were a meta-band which reflected the rock’n’roll world. But more than anything there was this feeling that the traditional gender categorization that inserted men and women into predefined and rigid draws is just wrong, and that human sexuality is much more diverse and fluid. Gay culture attracted not only homosexual but also every other sexual deviant who fell outside the normative definitions, because only in it they found a community willing to accept them as they are. Bowie, now, decided to absorb all that and merge it with rock’n’roll. In January 72 he declared in an interview that he is bisexual, and turned the androgynous Ziggy into character that provided a model of identification to all those who felt different and ostracized due to their sexuality. And so, with an identity that combines rock’n’roll, sexual fluidity, glamour and alienation, he posed himself as something completely alien to the prevailing logic and yet exciting and tantalizing.
Back then, Bowie was still a marginal and unknown rock singer, but in the first half of 1972 Ziggy and the Spiders began performing and building an audience. In June came the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, containing eleven tracks which all stand on their own as an independent piece but together they also form a story. The opening tracks describe the sense of loss of direction and meaning in a world that has no future and its inhabitants no longer know how to reach Heaven, and the birth of Ziggy Stardust as the Messiah that brings the answer. The fourth track, ‘Starman’, portrays the moment in which Ziggy arrives in his spaceship and broadcasts to the kids through rock’n’roll radio stations to present them with his alternative, and their ecstatic reaction as they all feel like they’ve found the thing that represents an inner truth they hitherto could not express. Bowie performed this song in July on Top of the Pops, presenting Ziggy Stardust to the British youth. By then, he and his band already perfected their glamorous and androgynous look, with the multicolored outfits, the makeup and the glitter, and were ready to amaze the world. And they certainly did amaze, in a performance that seemed like it came from another world. At one point he wraps a limp arm around the shoulders of guitarist Mick Ronson, in a manner that a “real” man was not supposed to touch another man, and clarified that he represents a different kind of sexuality. And the moment in which he looks directly at the camera and points at the home viewer was the moment in which many alienated boys and girls felt like he was telling them: I’m here to bring you salvation.
And what Bowie prophesized in the record became reality. Youngsters from all over Britain, and later other places in the world, felt that Ziggy speaks to something inside them and liberates them, and immediately adopted the new identity he offered them. The next tracks on the album elaborate on the character of the bisexual and glittering superstar Ziggy, as well as describing the euphoric state his fans experience when they can finally express themselves and find others like them with which they can form a community and come together in a loving unity. But then, the Utopia begins to unravel. The initial thrill is gone, and the need to recreate the experience again and again drags you to radicalize the elements of your identity and stretch it in every direction until it can no longer maintain the harmony. The album describes how Ziggy gets addicted to his stardom until eventually he sees himself as standing above others, thus destroying the sense of unity, and how his fluid sexuality pushes him to go further and further until the sex is no longer an expression of love but of obsessive lust. And so, he falls from Heaven back into an alienated existence, taking his fans down with him. The closing track of the album, ‘Rock’n’roll Suicide’, shows Ziggy after the fall, when he can no longer recreate the same joyful experiences. This action of externalizing the inner truth is also an action of spiritual suicide – once you’ve externalized it, you sentenced it to be gradually corrupted until it can no longer bring you joy. But then Ziggy makes his last discovery: while his identity was corrupted, a new inner truth grew inside him and inside others, a new sensibility on which it is now possible to form a new happy identity. Just like Ziggy once came to save his fans, no someone else comes and saves him, and shows him how to be happy.
That’s the story of the album, and it is actually the story of all the communities that sprung out of fifties and sixties rock’n’roll. They all went through this process of rise and fall, and the Spiders from Mars were therefore a meta-band that reflected all that has happened in rock’n’roll before them. But since Bowie already understood this process, he was smarter. He experienced the rise of Ziggy Stardust, and it occurred exactly as predicted in his album, but he had no intention of going through his fall. Bowie kept on criticizing himself, asking if he is still rising or if the fall had begun. Towards the end of 72 he began appropriating elements of Japanese fashion in Ziggy’s look, and thus maintained his alien aura (Japan was still a different and scary world at that time). He shaved his eyebrows, began using much heavier makeup and dyed his hair in flaming red, giving himself a look of a Japanese kabuki character. Out of that emerged a new identity – Aladdin Sane – that still played Ziggy Stardust but did so theatrically. At the beginning of 1973 came Aladdin’s eponymous album, and its first track – ‘Watch that Man’ – reveals that Bowie no longer identifies himself with Ziggy, but feels as if he’s watching him from the sidelines and doesn’t comprehend exactly what he’s doing. As mentioned, he continued to perform under the name Ziggy Stardust, but he was actually already in a new identity, that of Aladdin Sane.
Aladdin’s name is a pun. On the one hand he is Aladdin Sane, who continues to produce magical characters from his lamp and entice his fans’ imagination. On the other hand he is A lad insane, who feels how the need to go further and further with the elements of Ziggy’s identity that are driving him closer and closer to a rock’n’roll suicide. One of the characters Aladdin released from his lamp is the Jean Genie, whose name is a paraphrase on the French artist/criminal Jean Genet, who posited his homosexual character as something diametrically opposed to everything the bourgeois culture represents. Bowie combined Genet with rock’n’roll, sings a song that eulogizes the Genie as a model of a totally free existence, but with an underlying tone of bemoaning the loneliness of such a life.
On a more morbid note, ‘Drive-In Saturday’ describes a world that went through an atomic holocaust, and the surviving youngsters forgot how to have sex. They watch old movies and listen to rock’n’roll records, trying to imitate the motions described in them to reignite the flame of sexuality, but to no avail. What Bowie expresses here, as on other tracks of the album, is the fear that once we used something to construct our identity, it’s as if we killed it forever. The sixties sexual revolution, to which Ziggy was the most radical embodiment, liberated sexuality from its shackles, but it can lead to all of the thrill being gone out of sex.
In the end, Bowie felt that Ziggy ran its course. He no longer brings him the ecstasy and joy as he did at first, and for that there could be only one solution. In the beginning of July 1973 he ended a triumphant English tour with a concert at the Hammersmith Odeon in London, and used the opportunity to perform the final act in Ziggy’s play. Ziggy was at the height of his fame, a comet that within a year conquered British pop and became the greatest musical sensation, carried on the adoration of his fans who regarded him as the second coming. In front of this enthusiastic audience, Ziggy ended the show by announcing that he is quitting the stage forever, and as everyone were still in shock and trying to process the information he began performing ‘Rock’n’roll Suicide’, which now gained its true meaning. The official announcement of his retirement came the next day, ending any lingering doubt. Ziggy Stardust was dead.
But it soon became apparent that the suicide was Ziggy’s alone, not Bowie’s. Bowie shed the Ziggy skin, which no longer reflected his inner feelings, and moved on. Actually he was already Aladdin Sane, and only needed to kill Ziggy in a dramatic fashion to get his fans to realize it. And throughout the seventies, he would carry on doing that. Every year he would create a new identity through merging with something alien, and release an album that would represent this identity. The opening track of every album would express the crisis which the previous identity came to, and the subsequent tracks would show how the new identity resolves the crisis and makes his existence harmonious and happy again. And through these albums, Bowie also dealt with the ethical question that this lifestyle invoked, eventually creating the ethics of pop culture. These ethics determine that you must always be attentive of your inner truth, and create an identity based on it. When this identity is no longer happy, it means it no longer represents your truth, and therefore you must change. This you do by opening yourself up to something that is alien to your logic but infatuates you, because that means that it reflects your current inner truth and by merging with it you can create a new happy identity. In order for you to live this lifestyle of constant change and remain happy, you must live in a free and pluralistic society which will allow you and all those aliens to coexists, influence each other and change whenever you want, and therefore these ethics also demand that you fight to create such a society. Moreover, the history of pop shows us that an inner truth is never particular to you alone but is shared with others, so the new identity constructed from it is a tribal identity which enables you to live in a happy and loving community. To be able to experience this love you must of course be an emphatic human being who is open to other human, and not do anything that will harm others and harm that part in you. Furthermore, you must think of the entire human race as your brothers and sisters, because every individual can belong to one of your communities, now or in the future. Through this process of uniting with others and creating new identities you also build bridges between humans, enhancing social solidarity and marching the world towards a better future.
The Beatles, in their albums, expressed several ideals, each fine in itself but hard to combine together: the emphasis on joys of the present above working for a speculated happiness in the future, the determination to be true to yourself and not live by outside dictations, the yearn to unite in love with others, the aspiration to change the entire world into a good and loving one, and more. These ideals drive anyone who grew up on their records, but the problem was that they seemed to contradict each other. Bowie’s ethics showed pop culture how you can dovetail all of them to create a coherent set of values that will allow you to live a happy life. Sgt. Pepper asked the question, Ziggy Stardust provided the answer. Now, all that was left was to make the world familiar with this answer.