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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Star

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So, 'Moonage Daydream' and 'Starman' established that Ziggy is an alien, and 'Lady Stardust' revealed one of the traits that make him an alien: his bisexuality. The next song, 'Star', presents Ziggy's other otherworldly trait: his superstardom.

We have already encountered Bowie's fascination with the phenomenon of stardom, and how it connects to his dreams of a heroic existence. 'The Prettiest Star' suggests that we carry the memories of movies we saw and out of them we can create ourselves as something bigger than life, like the silver-screen stars. And Hunky Dory contains several references to Hollywood and its stars, as well as eulogizing Andy Warhol and his aesthetic celebration of fabrication and glamour. But why do I call this "otherworldly"? Because it went against the grain of the Hippie worldview that dominated the rock world at the time, a worldview that demanded that musicians be "authentic" and stay away from any artificiality and fabrication. Stardom was regarded as part of the "fake and meaningless" world of pop, which serious rock musicians were to stay away from. When Bowie and Bolan turned glam and embraced stardom, many dismissed them as sellouts who gave up on authenticity in exchange for fame and fortune. But they were wrong, because what Bowie does here is actually to undermine the entire Hippie worldview, and redefine our notions of "real" and "fake".

Why did the Hippies, and most other people, grasp glamour and stardom as something fake? Because their worldview held the belief that we are defined by an "inner self", a core that remains stable, while our varying outer-identity is just the cultural mask we are wearing. The star persona is not who the person "really is inside", but a projection for the public's eyes, and therefore regarded as unreal. Hippies believed that rock should be an expression of authenticity, and that music is the way to remove the masks and reveal ourselves as we really are. Furthermore, they believed that by dropping the masks, the boundaries between humans will fall and the human race will unite in harmony and love. Playing the game of stardom, and putting the emphasis on one's "fake" outer persona instead of his real "inner self", were therefore regarded as something that hinders our chances to create a utopia.

Bowie, of course, saw things differently. As we know, he did not believe in an "inner real self", a permanent core that defines us, and regarded everything in our being as subject to change. In his worldview, what defines us is not who we are inside, but what we act out in the world, and if the way we act induces happiness, then it is real. In 'Andy Warhol' he tells us what would happen if we force Andy to take a cruise on his own, as if to tear him away from his regular actions and surroundings and give him a chance to search for his inner self: he will nevertheless continue to think about his art, and about other people. In other words, Warhol gets that the "real self" is not a personal inner thing that you are born with, but rather something you create and share with others. And that is why the star, who presents a distinct artificial identity that can be imitated by others, is actually a model of authenticity.

It is well known that the formation of a movie star in the golden age of Hollywood was largely the work of the studios, which created the persona for the stars and then sold it to the public through a clever public relations machine. When it comes to music, however, our approach tends to be more romantic, and we want to believe that rock stars become so because of their musical talent. The perception isn't true in both cases: Hollywood stars become so mainly because of a quality they themselves possess, while the making of rock'n'roll stars does involve a great deal of conjuring. Bowie was now getting prepared to employ the lessons of decades of star making, and conjure up the biggest rock star of them all.

Of course, David Bowie himself is nothing but a stage persona conjured up by David Jones, and one of the tactics he used to market this alias was to blame it on another rock act, an act that became infamous for its inauthenticity. The Monkees, a band that was conceived by two TV producers who wanted to create an American version of the Beatles, hit American television in September 1966 as a weekly show, offering a combination of zany slapstick comedy, innocuous youth rebellion, and Beatlesque musical numbers written by professional tunesmiths. The personas of the band members were prefabricated by the producers and played by actors (including a Briton named Davy Jones), but many kids nevertheless fell under their charm and hysteria didn't fail to ensue. Within a year, though, rock started taking itself more seriously, moving in the direction of authenticity and profundity, and the Monkees became a laughing stock (even the band members themselves rebelled against the concept, and tried to make it as a "real" band, writing their own tunes). In the collective memory of rock, the Monkees were remembered as a sham, a cynical attempt by the industry to cash in on youth culture. Bowie managed to escape the peril of being wrongly identified as Monkee Davy Jones when he changed his stage-name, but by 1972 he was taking a fresh look on the world of rock and finding merit in what the Monkees had to offer. The people who created the Monkees showed that you can actually determine the image of the band before you make the music, and also that you can make the public believe it. They were displaying their creativity not through the musical side of pop but through the sides of identity creation and crowd manipulation, sides that late-sixties rockers didn't pay much attention to but Bowie was now getting ready to explore. So while past heroes like Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones, the Who et al. left the development of these sides to their managers, Bowie was to set a new standard in which image creation and media manipulation are to be done by the artists themselves, part and parcel of their art. "I wasn't at all surprised that Ziggy Stardust made my career," he said years later, "I packaged a totally credible plastic rock star – much better than any sort of Monkees fabrication. My plastic rocker was much more plastic than anybody's." Bowie was about to redefine what rock was about: instead of focusing on the music and letting everything else revolve around it, the rock artist should first of all create an identity for himself and everything else should revolve around that.

Another influence on Bowie's new perception came from the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, an eccentric country & western performer who was convinced he was going to become a legendary star and named himself accordingly. He was basically laughed off the stage, but Bowie was intrigued by the fact that the guy announced himself as a star before becoming one in the attempt to make the public see him as such. Borrowing the "Stardust" moniker for his own creation, Bowie was determined to succeed where the Ledge failed.

In 1970 Bowie encountered another wannabe star when he was approached by Les Payne, lead singer of the band Chameleon, who asked him to write a song for them. Chameleon were on the verge of breaking big and Bowie gave them a song called 'Star', which reflected the thoughts of every teenager dreaming of rock stardom. But Chameleon soon broke up and their version was not released, and Payne went on to miss a few more shots at fame, eventually making a name for himself as the rocker who almost made it. Bowie, on the other hand, did make it, and his revamped version of 'Star' became a central piece in the Ziggy story.

Tony went to fight in Belfast
Rudi stayed at home to starve
I could make it all worthwhile as a rock & roll star
Bevan tried to change the nation
Sonny wants to turn the world, well he can tell you that he tried
I could make a transformation as a rock & roll star

'Star', in a way, is an extension of 'Changes'. On that song, Bowie told us that there were "a million dead-end streets", and here he counts some of them. Tony went to fight for his country, still believing in the old notions of patriotism, but the country turned out to be a false idol. Bevan (a name that brings to mind Aneurin Bevan, and therefore socialism) tried to change the nation from within and achieve socialist utopia, but that proved to be unattainable as well. Rudi (probably a shout-out to his friend Freddi Burretti, a.k.a "Rudi Valentino") gave up on all ideologies and refuses to commit to anything, but that way, as Bowie already told us in 'Quicksand', only leads to spiritual starvation. And Sonny kind of sums up all those ideologies that believed that in order to give meaning to your existence you should strive to change the world for the better. 'Changes' overturned that perception, in teaching us that the change should not be done for the end result but for the sake of the change itself, because through transformation we find joy. 'Star' presents the way of life that enables you to realize this new ethic: as a rock'n'roll star, he could perform the transformations he wants and make his existence worthwhile.

So inviting - so enticing to play the part
I could play the wild mutation as a rock & roll star


And so he will become a rock'n'roll star, and through that, he believes, he will have the freedom to keep mutating, and keep living a wild and exciting way of life.

I could do with the money
I'm so wiped out with things as they are
I'd send my photograph to my honey - and I'd c'mon like a regular superstar

This passage deals with the more trivial temptations of stardom: money and fame. Bowie acknowledges that they are part of it as well, but as he told us in 'Changes', the aim is not to be a richer man but a different man. Money and fame are seen as a secondary thing, while the main goal is self-creation. Bowie uses the term "superstar", a term Warhol used to denote those glamorous characters that surrounded him and lived their entire lives as if they were stars on the silver-screen. This now becomes Bowie's ideal: he will present the rock'n'roll equivalent to Warhol's superstars and create a persona who exists not only on stage but in real life as well. He will become the star persona, and compel the rest of the world to see him that way. Thus, he believes, he will achieve the heroic existence he was dreaming of.

I could fall asleep at night as a rock & roll star
I could fall in love all right as a rock & roll star

Here, however, the rhetoric is going a little too far and reveals the ironic side of the record, an irony that drips from the way Bowie sings these lines. The protagonist, it seems, believes a little too much in the power of stardom to provide happiness. The record goes against Hippie dogma and shows us that stardom is actually a positive thing, but these lines remind us that it has a dark side as well. It seems that the protagonist has gone over to the dark side, and fell into the entrapments of stardom.

Within the context of the Ziggy saga, this is the moment when our hero starts to lose it. When he initially took the stage, he did it because he wanted to express himself and in order to find others who are like him, with whom he can come together in love. Now he starts to think about money and fame as well, and believes he can find even better love as a star, as someone who is above the crowd. We are at the zenith of Ziggy's rise. From here on begins the fall.

As an anthem for superstardom, this was a perfect vehicle for Bowie when he finally became a stadium-rock superstar in 1983, and he opened some of the shows on the Serious Moonlight tour with it. He'd begin by reciting 'The Jean Genie' until he'd reach the word "Monroe", and then launch into 'Star', as if to remind us that he is only borrowing some of the star dust of those who came before.

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