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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Lady Stardust

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In 'Starman', Bowie describes the moment when the kids first hear Ziggy on the airwaves and portrays the thrill of encountering a new musical experience, something that is alien to the rationality of the culture you grew up in. 'Lady Stardust' does the same, but describes the moment of actually seeing the new act perform on stage. And it adds two more important ingredients to the story. First, it gets deeper into the phenomenon of the crowd's reaction and tries to understand what causes it. Secondly, it provides us with a clue to one of the traits of the Ziggy character, one of the things that make him an alien.

As with any other track on the album, this one can be understood both ways: as a standalone piece, and as part of the bigger story. In itself, the record seems to be inspired by a very special moment in pop history, the moment glam rock broke big. The glam sensibility had been fermenting since 1970, inspired by Warhol via the Velvet Underground, and developed in England by the two friendly rivals David Bowie and Marc Bolan. Both of them have been going through the same phases since the mid-sixties, but up to 1972, Bolan was always a step ahead: trendier as a Mod, freakier as a Hippie, flashier as a glam rocker. In his Hippie phase, he was a cult figure, catering to the flower children's yearn to escape the realm of science into the realm of magic by providing Tolkienesque fairytales of wizards and elves sung in a dreamy voice with folksy acoustic backing. But when Hippie magic started to whither away, Bolan joined Bowie in the quest to reconnect to the roots of early rock'n'roll and draw imagery not from fantasyland but from a futuristic space age. His lyrics were still surrealistic, but the landscape was now an urban landscape, the images were now rock'n'roll images (in other words, cars and girls), the music was rhythmic and electrified, and the vocals charged with sexual energy and prowess. Tyrannosaurus Rex, his cult band, now became T. Rex, a stomping monster oriented towards making smash hits, and in March 1971 they were scheduled to appear on Top of the Pops to perform their new single 'Hot Love'. And appear they did, with Bolan adorned in a shiny silver suit and a touch of glitter under the eyes, bringing back the glamour into rock'n'roll. It doesn't look very shocking when you watch it nowadays, but against the backdrop of the unglamorous, macho, denim-clad world of early seventies rock he came over as a radiant androgynous figure, sending a jolt of excitement through many teen viewers. Within weeks, the streets were colonized by kids who mimicked Bolan's style, and the era of glam was upon us.

Bowie, as always, took notes and internalized. And so, even before he had his own Top of the Pops moment (with 'Starman'), he already prophesizes the reaction he would generate, by writing a song inspired by Marc's big moment and making it part of the Ziggy Stardust narrative. 'Lady Stardust' is that song.

People stared at the makeup on his face
Laughed at his long black hair, his animal grace
The boy in the bright blue jeans
Jumped up on the stage
And lady stardust sang his songs
Of darkness and disgrace

Once again, Bowie is analyzing the moment when human beings encounter something that is alien to their rationality. Rock'n'roll, when it broke in the fifties, went against every notion of musical "quality" and was laughed at and scolded by culture guardians who regarded it as a primitive form of music. But there was also fear: the sudden appearance of this primitive, "animalistic" form of music went against the notion that we are continuously progressing away from our animal roots, and thus threatened to expose the whole rationality of "progress" as erroneous. That is why the adults were so perturbed by it and tried to ridicule it and shut it up, but the kids didn't care – they knew rock'n'roll gave them more joy than anything else and they didn't have to explain it rationally. By the late sixties, however, rock also began to think of itself in terms of "quality" and "progress", and moved away from its rock'n'roll roots. Bowie, through Ziggy, brings rock'n'roll back, with a rereading of what rock'n'roll does: the ecstatic joy did not come from a "retreat to animalism", but because this "animalism" was alien to the rationality of the fifties and liberated the kids from it. Rock'n'roll, in other words, is a liberating force that smashes the rationality of your old world and gives you that special thrill of breaking loose. So to revive rock'n'roll, you must find a way to come over as something that is alien to the rationality of your time, and this is exactly what Bolan did. In his long black hair, makeup and glitter, he looked effeminate, confusing the very strict gender lines. Androgyny, then, is the way to go, and Bowie appropriates it to his own means. The description given in 'Lady Stardust' fits Bolan to a tee, documenting that moment when he made his initial ripple, but at the same time it switches the story towards our hero, Ziggy Stardust. Referring to him throughout as a male, but calling her a "Lady", it suggests that this is a creature of dubious sexuality, which does not fit any sexual category in our current rationality and thus threatens to show this entire rationality as erroneous. As always, most people reject this alien, reacting with fear and ridicule. The fear was mentioned in 'starman'; here we encounter the ridicule.

Femme fatales emerged from shadows
To watch this creature fair
Boys stood upon their chairs
To make their point of view

But not everybody is laughing. There are those who find in the alien something that reflects what they feel inside, something they can identify with. Bowie characterizes Ziggy's crowd: it is made from "boys", teenagers who feel alienated from the world they grew up in, and "femme fatales", a term that immediately evokes the Velvet Underground classic and can stand for all those urban misfits in the VU's albums. All those persons now come out of the shadows and "make their point of view" – another clever Bowie pun, which can mean that they want a better view of the performer, but also that they can now finally express what they feel inside, given a voice by Ziggy.

I smiled sadly for a love I could not obey
Lady stardust sang his songs
Of darkness and dismay

Suddenly, the narrator makes his own presence known, and we learn that he too was among this crowd. But he reacts differently than all the others: he does not mock the alien, but he does not let himself be swept by him/her either. He does feel that this creature kindled something inside him, but he cannot obey this inner feeling and remains in the capacity of observer to the whole affair. What is that "love" that he feels inside, and why does he feel that he cannot obey it? Don't worry, we will have our answer by the end of the record.

And he was alright, the band was altogether
Yes he was alright, the song went on forever
And he was awful nice
Really quite out of sight
And he sang all night long

It is part and parcel of the rock'n'roll mythology: when rock'n'roll first broke, it suddenly seemed like time stopped rushing forward, and instead became an eternal circle of joy. Every new moment brought a new thrill, the options to explore seemed endless, and life became a twenty-four-hour party. You can hear this sentiment in early rock'n'roll records like Bill Haley's 'Rock Around the Clock' and Chuck Berry's 'Round and Round'. But then the rock'n'roll moment faded, time resumed its forward motion, and life was a drag once again. The memory lingered, though, and rock'n'roll always dreamed of returning to that magical moment. Ziggy, now, comes to revive it once again, to stop time and plunge the youth into non-stop partying. The album was supposed to contain his rendition of 'Round and Round', telling us how the joint started rocking once Ziggy came on and just wouldn't stop. The track was eventually edited out, but it doesn't matter, because the chorus of 'Lady Stardust' says it all. The appearance of this "out of sight" musical alien seems to lock us in a magical circle where the song just goes on forever, and we find ourselves in a "paradise" of ultimate joy.

In 'Soul Love', Bowie spoke of his need for love, and how he does not know how to find it and can only hope for it to descend on him. Well, Ziggy now shows us that love can also be willfully generated. When you find a way to embody something inside you that heretofore could not be expressed, you provide anyone who suffered from the same repression with something they can identify with, and once they do, they all assume a collective identity and unite in a mutual bond. "The band was all together", sings our narrator, but it's not just the band: everyone touched by Ziggy now comes together and find themselves to be parts of a bigger whole, an all-embracing love.

So by appearing as androgynous, Ziggy touched something inside a few kids and misfits, helping them to come out of the shadows. What is that repressed trait inside of them, which the alien now liberates? 

Ooh how I sighed, when they asked if I knew his name

It's the sigh that gives it away. In 'Two Loves', a poem written by Lord Alfred Douglas, Uranian poet and Oscar Wilde's "special" friend, the hero dreams of standing in a strange garden where he has a brief erotic encounter with a young lad. Then, two figures promptly appear, one of them singing beautiful and joyous songs about love between boy and girl, the other just sighing sadly. The hero asks the silent one "what is thy name?", and the latter replies "my name is Love," but the other figure immediately intervenes and contradicts him, claiming that "I am true Love, I fill the hearts of boy and girl with mutual flame,"while the other one's name isn't "Love" but "Shame". To which the sad one sighs again and says: "Have thy will, I am the love that dare not speak its name." The sad figure, then, represents a kind of love that isn't between a boy and a girl, but is still love. What is the nature of that "other" love, the love that dare not call itself love, dare not sing its own songs, because it is not allowed to do so by the more dominant kind of love? To the prosecutors in Oscar Wilde's trial (and they were most probably right), there was no doubt: it is homosexual love, asking to be recognized on the same level as heterosexual love. This was, of course, out of the question in Victorian England, and continued to be so in the 20th century, but by invoking that infamous poem in his line about sighing and daring not saying the name, Bowie is now telling us who Lady Stardust truly is: she is the voice of that other love, which finally found a way to sing its own songs. Not allowed to sing beautiful love songs, she focuses on the dark side of human existence, singing about disgrace and dismay, but by so doing, she provides a turf for those other kind of lovers to express themselves and come together. The narrator is still bound by the old conventions, still sighing instead of calling his feelings by name, still not daring to obey his homosexual love. But on the stage in front of him, and in the crowd's reactions around him, the conventions are breaking down and we are entering a new world.

'Lady Stardust', then, introduces us to one of the traits that make Ziggy an alien: his bisexuality. It has a few levels. On one level, it is simply a continuation of the sixties sexual revolution. The Hippies said "Make Love, Not War", and lived up to their credo by practicing "free love" – in other words, as much sex as possible. Ziggy now comes to traverse more boundaries, and make love even more global and free. His inaudible muttering in the end, which sounds something like "get some pussy now!", suggests that this is merely the next step in rock'n'roll's insatiable quest for the next sexual adventure.

But it is also a revolution. Ziggy embodies an identity that couldn't exist before, an identity that went against the rationality of the time. This rationality defined each gender in strict terms, and had very definite ideas on what is "masculine" and what is "feminine". If a boy displayed "feminine" traits, or a girl "masculine" traits, they were regarded as "unnatural" and needing a cure. But many girls and boys had traits that did not fit into the neat draws of the dominating rationality, and they had to hide these traits, hide their true nature. Ziggy now blends "feminine" and "masculine" together, presenting an identity that contains both, and enables those kids to break away from oppression and live out what they feel inside.

And, of course, he is also giving a voice to that love that dared not speak its name, to homosexual love. Homosexuality was also considered "unnatural" and forced to hide, but Ziggy wears it on his sleeve with pride and encourages others to do the same. In the subculture that develops around Ziggy, they can sing their own songs at last.  

Finally, Ziggy's bisexuality can be understood on an aesthetic level as well. There is an old tradition in Western thought that regards the male gender as the one who stamps his own form into things, and the female as the formless clay who is being stamped. Rock music followed this tradition, demanding that its male singers would present an original identity and impose it on the world. Ziggy obeys this demand, but Bowie understood that there is no such thing as a completely original identity – everyone learns from others, and originality means taking what you've learned and creating something new out of it. In other words, you first of all have to let others lay their form on you and be impregnated by them, before you can create a new form and lay it on others. Ziggy, then, is a bisexual type of artist, holding both the "female" part of being stamped by someone else, and the "male" part of stamping his own form on the world.

'Lady Stardust' is the record that puts forth this novel aesthetic approach. The reigning perception of art contended that every artist has a unique vision which stems from his unique self, and he should spend his entire life developing that vision and growing the self in the process. But Bowie's perception regards the self not as a growing thing but as a thing that is periodically reborn through transformations, and so he uses his art to create these transformations. At the beginning of each transformation there's this moment where he encounters an alien performer, and feels a strange fascination, an inner attraction. His rationality tells him that this is a love that he cannot obey, that this alien is all "wrong", but Bowie tells us that we should indeed obey this love, because we will be reborn in the process. On one level, this record is about how Bowie was reborn when he saw Marc Bolan, and let himself be transformed by emulating him. On the second level, it is about how the kids are reborn when they let themselves be taken by Ziggy. On the third level, this is the blueprint for Bowie's entire career, a career built on constant transformations, achieved through emulating alien forms of art.

And here is Marc Bolan, in his long black hair, his animal grace, his band T. Rex and the makeup on his face, launching the glam craze in March 1971, and serving the inspiration to 'Lady Stardust'.

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