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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: The Prettiest Star

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This lovely little ditty predates the songs recorded for The Man Who Sold the World, but content-wise it belongs to the albums that came after. Written for Angie to celebrate their marriage, it was the follow-up single to `Space Oddity`, and the first Bowie record to deal with the concept of stardom. Alas, the single flopped, and stardom had to wait two more years. Bad for Bowie, perhaps, but excellent for us as his interpreters, because it kept him a while longer in the capacity of a sheer songwriter, someone who describes a certain phenomenon from the outside, and not a performer who lives out his songs. In his years of fame, Bowie would often sing about stardom and its trappings, and do it based on his own experiences. This record, on the other hand, provides us with a glimpse to his thoughts on stardom before he became a star.

What we can see is that Bowie is taking his idea of stardom from the movies, from Hollywood. Movie stars, unlike stars of theatre, are not distinguished by their acting abilities alone, but by a certain quality that we usually call "glamour". It is the ability to project yourself to the camera in a way that transfixes the eyes of the viewers and makes them feel that there is something unique behind this image, something larger than life. In the golden age of Hollywood, from the nineteen-twenties to the nineteen-fifties, the stars were the focal center of the movie industry and the pride of each big studio was its own star stable. Every star had their own unique persona which they played in every single movie, and the movies were tailor made to fit these personas while the studio`s public-relations machine labored to extend their mystique and make the public believe that they were that way in real life as well. As a result, the stars became ingrained in our minds as models of existence, for adulation and imitation.

From the fifties onward, cinema started to perceive itself increasingly as a "serious" art form, and think along more traditional artistic lines. That meant that actors were supposed to be more accomplished and versatile, and the star system began to unravel. For a while, rock`n`roll provided the substitute, with glamorous stars like Elvis, the Beatles and the Stones capturing the minds of the youth; but once the Hippies took over rock`n`roll, glamour was perceived as part of the "fake" world of showbiz and rock music was required to pose an "authentic" alternative. The rock bands of the late sixties were decidedly unglamorous, and anyone who displayed a shade of glamour was despised as belonging to the "meaningless" world of pop.

`The Prettiest Star` goes against this trend. And the message is delivered even before Bowie opens his mouth, carried on the wings of the guitar playing of his buddy Marc Bolan. Bolan, by then, was already one of the heroes of the British counterculture, with his acoustic sound and Tolkeinesque fairytales seen as something that takes us beyond the cold world of modern technology, but his impish character and colorful imagination were not excited by all the drab seriousness that overtook the rock world. At heart he was a Mod, an extrovert, and his reaction to all the "deep" soul searching was to highlight that side of himself. He started to electrify his act, and here we get one of the early examples of what was special about his electric guitar sound: while "serious" rock guitarist were musically skillful, emotionally heavy and emphasizing the human touch, Bolan`s guitar is lighthearted, playful, gleaming with the metallic sheen of a brand new toy. Right off the bat, it gives the record the feeling of something that is more about the exterior than the interior, more flash than content. And then, Bowie comes in, crooning prettily for his love.

Cold fire, you`ve got everything but cold fire
You will be my rest and peace child
I moved up to take a place near you
So tired, it`s the sky that makes you feel tried
It`s a trick to make you see wide
It can all but break your heart in pieces

In the first verse, Bowie tries to capture the essence of his loved one, and celebrates their union. We get the sense that there is some unique quality about her, something that makes her larger than life, which he is struggling to describe. Those are of course the natural feelings of a lover, but in the next verse, Bowie specifically ties her special quality to the movie stars:

Staying back in your memory
Are the movies in the dark
How you moved is all it takes
To sing a song of when I loved
The Prettiest Star

What attracts him about her is her glamour, which makes her the opposite of what he is. While he is an introverted poet, she wears her personality on her sleeve, projecting it in the way she moves. It is, he hints, a quality that she derived from Hollywood and internalized until it became part of her personality and turned her into the prettiest star.

One day, though it might as well be someday
You will rise on high and take us all the way
All because of what you are
The Prettiest Star

This, I believe, is the first instance in which we encounter Bowie`s messianic tendencies, which would feature so prominently in his songs from 70-71. Even before the concept of the Superman creeps in, Bowie is dreaming of "rising all the way", creating a higher form of existence. And so, while the Hippie singer/songwriters defamed stardom, seeing it as a type of being incorporated by the system, Bowie is regarding it in a positive way, seeing messianic possibilities in it. But he does not yet see himself as the star messiah. It has to be a glamorous person, someone who can shine, and he is therefore counting on Angie to be the one to lead the way. Or maybe he`s singing this to Bolan, the glittering rocker, whom he feels could shine and save rock`n`roll from its decline? In any case, Bowie does not regard himself as the leader. He probably sees himself in the role he assumed in `Cygnet Committee`, the role of the thinker behind the movement.

It was probably this sentiment that inspired the formation of Arnold Corns, in which he employed the ultra-glamorous Freddie Burretti (renamed Rudi Valentino, after the archetypal Hollywood star) as a front for his concepts and lyrics, and tried to take over the pop world. In the meantime, under his own name, he played the "serious" rock game, delving into philosophy, mysticism and science-fiction to search models for a more heroic way of life. In themselves, all those avenues led nowhere, but eventually he would bring them all together and turn himself into a new messianic model, utilizing all he learned from his extroverted partners. Angie would provide the drive and connections, Burretti the style and clothes and Bolan the rivalry and trailblazing prototype, to make Bowie come out of his cocoon and become the glamorous superman, the Prettiest Star.

And so, glam rock would be born. But for me, the moment the seed was sown was with this seemingly unimportant record, which heralded the birth of a new sensitivity, a post-Hippie view of glamour as a positive phenomenon. And how fitting it is that glam`s two greatest exponents happened to be there at that moment, collaborating to create it. In the next couple of years, Bowie and Bolan will go their separate ways, each developing this sensitivity in his own manner, until, finally, they came together again, to change the face of music.

In 1973, Bowie rerecorded the song for the album Aladdin Sane, with Mick Ronson playing Bolan`s guitar part. By then, Bowie was the biggest star on the English scene, and the romantic naivete of his original vocals is gone, replaced by jaded irony. Other tracks on the album paint an entirely different portrait of stardom.

Another thing that can be said about the record is that it does indeed capture Angie`s greatest asset. Angie always had ambitions to become a star herself, but over the years it became apparent that she didn`t have any talents to back it up, save for her talent to be a star. She was an important figure in glam because of her ability to be glamorous, but didn`t do anything noteworthy beyond that. Nevertheless, she managed to remain a known figure even many years after she divorced David, another testament to her ability to be the prettiest star.

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