David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars at 50.
Let the children lose it
Let the children use it
Let all the children… boogie
It is difficult to express how important David Bowie’s fifth album was in the annals of popular music without understanding its connection to the genre, purpose, and essence of what rock and roll meant (in 1972) to its third generation. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was, is, and will always be the soundtrack of iconography from Elvis Presley to Lady Gaga, because it is, as an artistic statement, a timeless examination of Western culture as ephemeral claptrap in the wake of youth-ego distortion. But it is, at its core, a reinvention of the form, while simultaneously playing up its most vital foundations, its humor, its majesty, its sexuality, and, most of all, embracing the solidarity of youth alienation. The symbol of Bowie as androgynous “Starman waiting in the sky” in his glamor queen, macho baller, furious rebel fragility, begs the question: does the death of the prepubescent spirit inevitably lead to drab immortality?
Oh, and it rocks. Hard.
This is not a review of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust to understand its musical brilliance, realized by his musical sherpa and rough-edged doppelganger, Mick Ronson, the din progeny of Hendrix, or even its image-driven “keep your ‘lectric eye on me, babe” manipulation. It is not going to regurgitate the obvious career move Bowie achieved by taking a slight, if not preternaturally gifted, pop singer-songwriter from the British dance-hall tradition and quite strategically turning him into a Glam Bitch God capable of giving voice and breath and infinity to The Teenager, in all its confused, angry, hormone-crazed isolation. This is about The Teenager. This is about the all the nobody people, and all the somebody people queer, shut-in, frightened, picked-on, disdained youth for which Ziggy-as-avatar stands for – beyond his singular place in campy “well hung and snow-white tan” rock-star satire with his “screwed-up eyes and screwed down hairdo.” Beyond the 1970s decadent, drug-addled chic doom that would come to define the art form for which Bowie had finally come of age in and will lead him until his dying breath with each new character driven statement, there is The Teenager. This the audience and the muse of Ziggy, the character, reflected in every note and lyric in Ziggy Stardust, as an album, as a movement, as a very real and lasting license to celebrate individuality as if divine mass.
Think about all of the strange things circulating round
It is not fair to say that Ziggy Stardust is the first youth statement as mass prayer – “new words / soul love” – but it is the most effective. In a very real way, Bowie’s pursuit of a conceptual rock piece does not make it unique for early 1970s rock, or certainly British rock. If anything, this is the time and place for grand statements –the birth of prog rock and the overindulgent statements in fog machines and costumes. But there is no arguing with Ziggy being the statement for The Teenager. Owning a rock star as personal badge of identification begins, and in many ways, ends with Ziggy. This is why Bowie killed him off after a year of parading his make-up-addled, emaciated carcass around the world in grand spectacle. Ziggy Stardust, who “told us not to blow it ‘cause it’s all worthwhile,” cannot live on Sugar Mountain or a darkened street corner as an aging font of bland maturity. He is the alien. Alienated. No metaphor there. Forever young, naïve, defiant. He is infinite woman/man/trans in two, three, four dimensions. An empty vessel to fill with fears and lusts, noise and spat from the “freak out, far out” ether on your “hazy cosmic jive” radio.
In this way, there is no timeframe for Ziggy Stardust and the Spider from Mars, because it never existed and never will. Not really. It is a fuck-around tits-and-confetti “moonage” daydream, a wisp, a sideways glance made by too much grope and hallucination and tint color and space boots and screaming guitars and moody piano and the pound-pound-pound of the drums. Tribes come calling. “The femme fatales emerged from shadows / To watch this creature fair / Boys stood upon their chairs / To make their point of view / I smiled sadly for a love I could not obey.” They will forever be young with their snot noses and high cheekbones and eye-shadow and colored fingernails and black lights revealing bemused smirks. Thus, they cannot be defeated or homogenized or god-forbid labeled or cornered or allowed to fade away. So… “don’t lean on me, man, you can’t afford the ticket.”
Inevitably they all burned out. Long before Johnny Rotten. Long before the “rock and roll suicide.” Get out while you can – this is what the music tells you – and it is not death. It is rebirth. It is refiguring. It is the epiphany of self-realization, the discovery of brutal truths. Bowie speaks of becoming in the whole of Ziggy, because that is the plight and blessing of The Teenager. The flayed bastard knowing that not knowing counts for something. Anything. And he made it so there was no lonely but the chosen lonely. This is what rock and roll was/is to anyone left who dares hear it. But it never mattered anyway. David Bowie sang at the end, “just turn on with me and you’re not alone” over and over like a mad mantra. He needed you to hear that. Because it was true. And truth is the same as making it all up when it doesn’t matter. You make your own myths, Ziggy says. That is why he came for a little while. “Five Years”? And fifty years later he is still saying it…