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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

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The years 1970-71 were the time when the last traces of revolutionary tendencies disappeared from rock music. In the late sixties, the Hippies believed that they are going to change the world, and the music that they created reflected and fueled that notion. But when time went by and the new order failed to materialize, most rockers looked for other inspirations, and the music changed. Rockers now focused less on politics and more on the music, and regarded rock as a "serious" art form, removed from the "meaningless" pop world. And since "seriousness" in music was defined by the terms created in the world of classical music, rock started to adopt its maxims and create long, slowly-developing pieces of elaborate musical composition. Instead of three minute singles, rock now focused on creating concept albums - that is, albums that are a cohesive piece, not just a collection of disconnected tracks. Some albums even had a plot, a story that unfolded from beginning to end, like an opera. They saw it as progress, but what this development actually did was to weaken rock music, not only as a social force but as an art form as well. It made it lose the thing that made it unique amongst the sixties arts, and that is its presence in the real world. Rock'n'roll was born in the era of mass electronic media, so a single that was carried on the airwaves was heard instantaneously by people all over the world, creating a shockwave that would reverberate through society and induce changes and new ideas. Thus, the world became a stage, on which the rock stars could perform and present new identities and attitudes. A concept album, on the other hand, was something that you had to go out and buy, so its message would reach only those who were already in the know. Thus, the rock artists were relegated to the role of faceless musicians, and lost the theatrical side of their art.

Into this world, David Bowie dropped The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spider from Mars, a concept album that had a narrative, and yet, did not suffer from the ailments of other concept albums. Because here, every song stands alone as a single art piece, and is not subordinate to the overall narrative but rather tells a story of its own. The narrative of the album arises from stringing these stories together, and remains very loose and flexible. And, more importantly, the songs had presence in the real world, in such a way that the story of the album amazingly played itself out in real life as well. Bowie was the first rocker to be self-consciously theatrical, to present a character who turns the world into his stage and at the same time reflect on the nature of the relationship between this character and the world. This is what makes this album so unique in the history of art, and when we analyze the album, we must also see how its theatre unfolded.

I surmise, then, that Ziggy Stardust was the first serious attempt of rock'n'roll to reflect on itself, to figure out what it is and what is its place in the world. When rock'n'roll sprang into the world in the fifties, it created a generational gap and became the language of a youth culture that saw itself as more lively than the previous generations, and in the first years of youth culture there was no need for self-reflection: rock'n'roll just kept moving by its own inertia, providing a steady stream of great records and novel experiences, and constantly breaking new grounds. But when the Hippies took over, the rebellion became more serious, taking revolutionary tones and aiming to actually overthrow the order created by the previous generations. Rock'n'roll changed into the more stern music that was called rock, and the Hippies looked back at the three minute outbursts of early rock'n'roll as merely the budding of a new rebellious spirit which now had to become more "serious". But the Hippie revolution failed, and only served to take all the fun and liveliness out of the music and culture of the youth. In his 1969 album Space Oddity, Bowie provided harsh criticism of the youth culture of the time, through allegorical stories about characters that have lost their way. This criticism continued in his next album, The Man Who Sold the World, but here he also delved deep into philosophical realms and found a personal answer in the Nietzschean concept of the Superman. And in his next album, Hunky Dory, he turned his philosophical eye back on youth culture, looking at it through his Nietzschean prism and aiming to point its rebellious spirit in another direction. The inquiries of Hunky Dory provided the blueprint of what needed to be done to save rock music and put youth culture back on track. Now, with his next album, Bowie doesn't just point, but takes it upon himself to be the agent of change, to put his conclusions to the test. Ziggy Stardust, while seemingly playing the progressive rock game of creating concept albums, undermines this game by going back to the source, back to three minute rock'n'roll, to unearth and scrutinize its most primal instincts and rekindle its spirit.

So, in what way does the album subvert Hippie dogmas? First of all, it is an urban album. The Hippies preached a return to nature, to a rural Garden of Eden that supposedly existed before it was twisted by Western civilization. Bowie accepts their claim that the urban world causes alienation, but rejects their solution and looks for the answer within the urban world, a world dominated by technology, mass media, shifting identities and cultural diversity. He does not look for a lost past but for a new future, creating a science-fiction fantasy. Marc Bolan already showed the way when he took his surrealistic imagery out of the Hippie fairytale land and into the big city, and Bowie follows his lead (and acknowledges his influence in 'Lady Stardust'). Another obvious inspiration is the urban poetry of the Velvet Underground, which he already paid tribute to in the previous album and is felt as a presence in this album as well ('Lady Stardust' evokes 'Femme Fatale', 'Suffragette City' nicks from 'White Light / White Heat', and the Spiders performed some VU numbers live). Stanley Kubrick's urban-futuristic nightmare A Clockwork Orange is another reference point, manifesting itself in the early look of the Spiders and in the word "droogie" dropped into the album. The back cover of the album invokes the sci-fi of Dr. Who, while the brilliant front cover puts Ziggy in noir urban settings, setting its nightmarish atmosphere, the backdrop to his tale.

The front cover:

The back cover: Ziggy being all campy in a phone booth, or rather a TARDIS (is it possible that he took it 40 years into the future, and learned that one of the biggest musical stars of the time is called K. West?)

The inner sleeve: the Spiders looking droogie, real horrorshow.

The main theme in Hunky Dory is spiritual desolation, a feeling that all paths have been tried already and there's nothing more that can excite and unite us. Ziggy Stardust picks up where its predecessor left, with two tracks that intensify the feeling. 'Five Years' tells us that there is no future, nothing to look forward to, and 'Soul Love' expresses inability to find someone or something to love. The Priest appears in the first track as someone who people turn to for answers in such times, but in the second track we find that his answer doesn't work. A little later in the album we find Bowie's cover of 'It ain't Easy', which expresses the desire to get to Heaven, but tells us that it ain't easy to get there in our current situation.

What is the way out, then? 'Oh! You Pretty Things' suggested another possibility: if we can't get to Heaven by ourselves, then someone can reach down from Heaven and lift us up there. But Heaven doesn't necessarily have to be the afterworld – it can simply be another world, like Mars. And so, 'Moonage Daydream' presents Ziggy, an invader from outer space, who comes to endow us with a spiritual alternative.

Does this mean that Ziggy has come to take us to another world? No. The conclusion from Hunky Dory is that Heaven is not a place but a state of mind, a state of mind that is achieved when we go through a process of transformation brought about by fusing ourselves with something alien. That is the secret of rock'n'roll, the thing that was lost when it became rock. Rock'n'roll sensations were always the outcome of fusing elements of one culture with elements from an alien culture, creating an ecstatic sound that seemed to be from another world. The thing about Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis was that they were white kids who sang and moved like blacks, thus going against the prevailing doctrine that "culture" means taking humanity further and further away from the jungle (while black music, in fifties America, was considered "jungle music"). They represented a new idea of culture, an idea that blew the minds of kids who felt alienated to fifties logic. The same thing happened when the Beatles fused English working-class attitude with American rock'n'roll, when the Stones brought together Mersey beat with African-American R&B and existentialist attitude, when Dylan merged folk with beatnik poetry and rock'n'roll, and so forth. They all managed to put together things that were hitherto alien to each other, and created a new experience that freed the minds of their fans. In 'Starman' and 'Lady Stardust', Bowie describes that spiritual moment of encountering an alien and feeling more affinity towards it than towards anything you've ever experienced. He depicts the initial fear to admit that affinity, and then the joy of allowing yourself to be conquered and transformed. And that is exactly what happened in July 1972, when Bowie performed 'Starman' on Top of the Pops and scores of kids who watched the show were forever transformed. The story of the song materialized in real life.

But how did this happen? We already know that to revive rock'n'roll you need to fuse together elements of your own culture with elements of an alien culture, but what were those elements that Bowie emulated to create the desired alien effect? There are several. First, there is the language of the album, a combination of the hippest American jive talk with old cockneyisms, and references taken from poetry and classic rock'n'roll records. Then there was the futuristic feel, achieved by the glittered-up Clockwork Orange look and the sound coming from Ronson's guitar pyrotechnics and Ken Scott's gleaming production. But the two main ingredients were Ziggy's sexuality and his stardom.

Ziggy's sexuality destroys all the neat categories created in the Victorian age. He is neither male nor female, neither hetero nor homo. His sexuality is amorphous, and appealed to those many kids who felt that they did not fit into the existing categories, giving them someone to identify with. On the album, it builds up slowly: in 'Five Years' we already meet "the queer", who seems to be the one with most sensitivity and perception, the one throwing up at the ugly sight of the world while other people are still drinking milkshakes obliviously. The queer stands apart from society, so he can see things more clearly. In 'Moonage Daydream' Ziggy introduces himself as a "mama-papa" and a "bitch", hinting at his epicene sexuality. In 'It ain't Easy', it ain't easy to tell if the woman calling from inside is an actual woman or a woman that is inside him. And it peaks in 'Lady Stardust', where Ziggy appears in all his multi-sexual glory. Ziggy turns out to be the queer who sees the world for what it is, and sings songs of darkness and dismay. On the way, Bowie gives shout-outs to gay icons Judy Garland (in 'Starman') and Lord Alfred Douglas (in 'Lady Stardust'), and even throws in some Vaseline for good measure.

Next on the album comes 'Star'. What was alien about stardom? It was alien because Hippie culture stayed away from the showbiz game of stardom, regarding it as "fake". Behind this perception was the old notion that truth is something that is eternal, something that is beyond Man, and anyone who makes himself the center of the world (like stars do) is holding on to something that is fleeting, and therefore fake. But for Bowie, the truth is something temporary, something that should be sought in the here and now, and then turned into the center of your identity. And stardom is a way to turn this truthful identity into the center of the world, and allow others to feel this truth as well. Therefore, he went against Hippie dogma and gave birth not just to a star, but to a starman, someone who has stardom as an innate quality of his nature, someone actually made out of stardust. And, like the plan he drew in 'Starman', he used the electronic media to project his image and turn the world into his stage.

Again, all of this took place in real life as well. Bowie spent the first half on 1972 perfecting the new identity of Ziggy Stardust, the hip futuristic urban multi-sexual superstar from outer-space, and by July he was ready to present him in all his glory on Top of the Pops. And just like 'Lady Stardust' follows shortly after 'Starman' on the album, so did the public, after the initial shock of seeing 'Starman' on TV, get scandalized even further by learning of Bowie's eccentric sexuality. And just like 'Star' follows 'Lady Stardust', Bowie soon became a star.

And so, Ziggy manages to do what the priest in 'Soul Love' failed to, and bring love into our lives. Instead of the divine love of Christianity, Ziggy introduces the church of man love. When a group of kids are transformed through adopting the alien image, they become as one against the rest of the world, and experience a feeling of togetherness and love. The birth of this brotherhood is presented in 'Starman', where the kids hide their newfound experience from their parents but contact each other to share it. It peaks in 'Lady Stardust', where the band is all together and everything is alright, and carries on into 'Hang onto Yourself'. And let's not forget the anthemic 'All the Young Dudes', the battle cry of a new generation.

With 'Hang onto Yourself', we are already in the swing of things. Everything has come together, and the album rocks hard with three consecutive tracks that take us into rock'n'roll heaven. But 'Hang onto Yourself' also warns us that just as it all came together, it can all come apart. You have to hang onto the initial experience that got you to this heaven, hang onto that truth you find inside yourself, and not lose it. For a while, Ziggy and his subculture manage to maintain their unity and love.

But eventually, it has to end. After a while, the thing that was alien becomes normal and loses its effect, and the sense of camaraderie it brought with it also dissipates. The two main ingredients in Ziggy's identity – his sexuality and his stardom – eventually bring his downfall. In 'Ziggy Stardust', we see that Ziggy's stardom, the very thing that initially brought everyone to converge around him and unify in love, now becomes the thing that puts him above all the rest and destroys the community. And 'Suffragette City' shows the sex taking over the love, and Ziggy sinking into a world of carnal pleasures, giving up his friendships on the way.

And so, this exploration into the nature of rock'n'roll ends with 'Rock'n'roll Suicide'. And suicide is indeed inherent in the nature of rock'n'roll: that unique fusion that puts you out of any preexisting category can work its magic only once and for a short period of time, but when the world gets used to it, it becomes just another category and then it loses the magic forever. Eventually, the unique fusion that Ziggy personified had stopped being exciting, and he could no longer reach the same heights as before – he killed his own uniqueness by springing it on the world, committed spiritual suicide. He is left to wander the streets alone, wondering what he's going to do with the rest of his life, now that his personal truth has lost its power to thrill. This is what happened to rock'n'roll in the late fifties, when the first wave died, and again in the late sixties, when Hippie euphoria died. But 'Rock'n'roll Suicide' provides the answer: that certain fusion may die, but rock'n'roll doesn't die, because it is always possible to create another fusion. In the early sixties it was the Beatles who saved rock'n'roll and brought back the thrill, in the early seventies it was Ziggy who did it, and now, someone else comes and reaches down to Ziggy to pull him up once more and take him to a world of joy and love. And that's how the album ends: Ziggy may not be rock'n'roll anymore, but rock'n'roll will keep on living.

This is how the album ends. But is this how real life should end? Bowie's rise in real life paralleled Ziggy's rise on the album, but knowing that Ziggy is bound to fall, will Bowie go with him all the way and experience the fall with him? Or will he be smarter than Ziggy, and use this self-reflective story to try to outsmart the rock'n'roll suicides that preceded him and enjoy the rise without having to endure the misery of the fall? And if so, how will he achieve it?

Five Years
Soul Love
Moonage Daydream
Starman
It ain't Easy
Lady Stardust
Star
Hang Onto Yourself
Ziggy Stardust
Suffragette City
Rock'n'roll Suicide

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is now considered one of the greatest rock albums of all times. The brilliant art cover is iconic, the punchy production of Ken Scott still sounds terrific, the hermetic sound of the band inspired many rock'n'roll acts that followed, and the tracks are all classics. From the haunting, chilling 'Five Years'; through the glam extravaganza of 'Moonage Daydream'; the loveliness of 'Starman' and 'Lady Stardust'; the rocking exhilaration of 'Hang onto Yourself', 'Ziggy Stardust' and 'Suffragette City'; and finally the thrill of 'Rock'n'roll Suicide', the album offers something for everyone. It has been referred to as the first (and best) post-modern rock album, the greatest gay album of all times, or simply the greatest album of all times. And it's all true.

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