Ziggy Stardust – Intentionally Unsustainable?

With David Bowie returning to the music industry after a 10 year break since the release of his last album Reality, I looked back to his earlier career, thinking about what launched him as a musician and cultural icon. Naturally, I came back to the creation of Ziggy Stardust, and the albums The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Aladdin Sane.

I should point out that I am a huge fan of David Bowie and his music. I find it so impressive that he has managed to change his image and his sound over the years, covering many varied styles, and yet has still remained one of the most popular and recognisable faces in the music industry. In particular, I am fond of his work from the 1970’s and 1980’s, and his work in the Ziggy Stardust era issome of my all time favourite music.aladdin saneThe Ziggy Stardust persona on the cover of Aladdin Sane, 1973, RCA Records. It is David Bowie’s most iconographic image.

Ziggy Stardust was created ina strange time for music and culture. He was born post Beatles, post legalised homosexuality, into a world of what is now known as ‘classic’ rock and the last dying remnants of the 1960’s hippy movement. It was a Britain, and a world, that had been forcibly changed in a very short space of time. People were looking for something new to follow, something that could unite them as The Beatles did, but inject some life and vigour into their everyday routines. The creation of glam rock, and T-Rex, came along as people were looking for it.

Marc Bolan was a massive influence on the creation of Ziggy Stardust. He was a musician unafraid to experiment with rock music, dressing it up in sequins and glitter to break out of the drab black/leather/long hair/denim scene surrounding rock at the time. T-Rex paved the way for Ziggy to come to life, however, Ziggy took glam rock and made it into something much more exciting than what T-Rex had originally created.

The character was an embodiment of utter flamboyance and sexuality. From his outrageous costumes and make-up (the instantly recognizable lightning bolt on his face, or the golden sun on his forehead), Ziggy was something brand new in the rock music world. David Bowie played with the character, testing the limits of people – particularly when he declared he was bisexual, in a landscape that was still largely unaccepting of the gay community, and his homosexually suggestive actions during his 1972 appearance on TOTP only added fuel to the fire. But Ziggy had appeal, and not just sex appeal. Everything about him was bright and explosive, constantly experimenting and reaching out to the new audiences.

Yet the fact that David Bowie crafted such a figure as Ziggy Stardust, who was the ultimate rockstar in many ways, from his oozing sexuality to his wild stage presence, creates a question. Did Bowie design Ziggy so as to launch his career properly? Prior to Ziggy’s arrival, Bowie had been trying to break into the industry for ten years, with limited success, aside from Space Oddity in 1969. But with Ziggy and the accompanying album, Bowie designed something that burned through the industry like wildfire. He took the essence of glam rock (which Bolan had also intended to be a trashy form of rock), combined it with an electrifying personality and threw Ziggy out into the world.

There is evidence to suggest that Bowie never intended to let Ziggy live long. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is itself a prophecy for the end of Ziggy, even as it heralded his arrival. The final track Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide tells of Ziggy dying on stage, torn apart by his adoring fans. This suggests that Bowie, even as he went on to record Aladdin Sane and complete the Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars tour, was already thinking ahead to when Ziggy would come to an end. He knew that Ziggy, both as a character and a musical style, could not be sustained. Whileit may have brought him the success he desired, Ziggy burnt too brightly to ever have lasted. Imagine Bowie trying to uphold Ziggy Stardust for 5 years, 10 years, 20 years after his arrival – the character would have quickly lost his exciting appeal, and Bowie would have slipped into obscurity. But by taking glam rock as his inspiration, Bowie was able to design a façade to launch his career, and make an indelible mark on rock music.

While Ziggy did not last long, and was retired at short notice (Bowie announced the end of Ziggy at his show at the Hammersmith Odeon, on 3rd July 1973), his legacy has been a lasting one. Not only did he prove to the music industry that rock music came in more forms than they knew, he provided influence for later followers, like Boy George, and even today, we can see his influence in artists like Lady GaGa. Ziggy was the fire that lit Bowie’s career, but he could never have lasted long. Bowie made the right decision in killing off Ziggy after just a few years, and although perhaps the short lifespan of Ziggy also shortened that of glam rock (which did not last much longer either), that he is still so recognisable today, 40 years on, shows what a lastinglegacy the character, and Bowie, has had.

220px-ZiggyStardust

The instantly recognisable album cover of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars, 1972, RCA Records.

 

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