From Ziggy to Blackstar: David Bowie’s Musical Masks

By: Katherine Reed (Utah Valley University) //

In a segment from D.A. Pennebaker’s concert film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, David Bowie shows the experimental fashion and performance style with which he would be linked for the rest of his career.

Perhaps the most memorable images of David Bowie feature the flaming red mullet and custom Kansai Yamamoto wardrobe of this final Ziggy Stardust concert. In a 2002 interview with Terry Gross, though, Bowie bristles at the suggestion that his career consisted of a parade of dresses and makeup: “That was for eighteen months, actually . . . which out of a career of nearly forty years is not very long.” He isn’t wrong about that, but the image of Bowie as a glammed-up chameleon persists in the days after his death. As the man himself said in March 2004, “I’ve always felt bemused at being called the chameleon of rock. Doesn’t a chameleon exert tremendous energy to become indistinguishable from its environment?” Bowie, of course, rarely fit into his environment. Countless memorials and think pieces since his death on January 10, 2016 pay homage to the performer’s groundbreaking gender bending and sartorial reinvention. What many forget, though, is that these masks weren’t just physical—Bowie reinvented himself musically, picking up new styles and idioms as it suited him.

It’s entirely possibly to be a devoted fan of early 1970s David Bowie and not even recognize your favorite artist in the mid-1980s hits of Let’s Dance or Tonight. This is where the real innovation of David Bowie lies: he subverted the expectations of a rock star by acting as what he would call a human Xerox machine. In a world where rock music was seen as an authentic and personal expression of the performer who created it, David Bowie instead embraced an ever-changing, obviously referential style that was anything but consistent. He listened, read, and watched voraciously, and this appetite was apparent in his wildly varied albums. Rock stalwarts like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles had changed musically, sure—but they had evolved in a way that seemed organic and true to their personae.

The Rolling Stones, for example, maintained a position of rebellious excess despite the cultural shifts of the 1960s and 70s; they explored the same tropes in different but related musical guises. Bowie’s changes were not organic, but jarring. We can find this in the stylistic jump from proto-punk Diamond Dogs to the plastic soul of Young Americans. Or Young Americans to the Kraftwerk-influenced Station to Station. The list goes on—and we’ve only touched the 1970s. David Bowie’s defining characteristic was his omnivorous appetite for influences and unparalleled ability to synthesize those influences into coherent and new wholes.

Take his breakout hit, 1972’s “Starman.” By this point, Bowie had been recording under his new name (not his given name, David Jones) for about five years and had had moderate success with “Space Oddity” and the albums The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory. Though he was not a newcomer, “Starman” and his Top of the Pops performance of it are frequently cited as the beginnings of his superstardom and unavoidable cultural presence.

David Bowie’s 1972 Top of the Pops performance of “Starman,” which is cited as influential by everyone from Morrissey to Simon Critchley, introduced a broad audience to his eclectic musical style and current persona, Ziggy Stardust.

It’s also a clear early example of Bowie’s wide range of musical influences. Though solidly in the pop-rock idiom, “Starman” still manages astonishing variety in its three-and-a-half minutes. The song opens with Bowie strumming his 12-string guitar, murmuring a syllabic, improvisatory vocal introduction. This section is in keeping with his earlier work, bearing resemblance to the intros to Hunky Dory songs like “8 Line Poem” or the luminous “Quicksand.” The really illustrative section of “Starman,” though, only takes about thirty seconds and manages to combine at least four clear allusions into a uniquely David Bowie chorus.

In the iconic Top of the Pops performance, listen starting at 0:47. The ostinato leading into the chorus is almost identical to the intro to Diana Ross and the Supremes’ “(You Keep Me) Hanging On,” though here it doesn’t make the same use of its stereo mix by oscillating from left to right. Immediately afterward, Bowie enters to sing the chorus, jumping a full octave on the word “star-man.” As Chris O’Leary notes, this isn’t unique in Bowie’s songwriting (see the chorus of “Life on Mars?”), but it is unprepared here, with no building instrumental backing. As such, this leap instead points to the chorus-opening leap in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” sung most iconically by Judy Garland. The chorus ends with the exhortation to “let all the children boogie.” This line is variously cited as a reference to the lyrics of T. Rex (always boogie-centric) or, more eclectically, John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen.” Either way, the chorus ends with the irresistible sing-along quality that marks the best of Marc Bolan’s T. Rex songs: “la la la”s and hand claps abound, just like “Hot Love” or the more contemporaneous “Metal Guru.” All this in the chorus of a song that even differentiates itself from its hard-rocking album (Ziggy features the driving “Suffragette City,” which for better or worse immortalized “wham bam, thank you ma’am”). Not only are these allusions diverse, but they also tap into familiar, existing musical tropes or traditions with which Bowie aligns himself: the Motown of the Supremes, the tragedy of Judy Garland, and the glam innovation of early-adopters T. Rex. For a 1972 audience, many of these quotations would have been recognizable. By combining all these references in “Starman,” Bowie effectively communicates his modus operandi to a wide audience in the span of one chorus.

Not everyone responded positively to this musical eclecticism, though. In particular, rock critics harped on Bowie’s lack of authentic personal expression. Legendary Rolling Stone and Creem critic Lester Bangs provided long-lasting sound bites to express his distaste with this post-modern pastiche of a rock star: “To hell with Ziggy Stardust, which amounted to starring Judy Garland in The Reluctant Astronaut, fuck trying to be George Orwell and William Burroughs when you’ve only read half of Nova Express.” (Here Bangs refers to Bowie’s early Garland-tinged hits including “Starman,” as well as his attempts at a 1984 musical, which would become Diamond Dogs, and his use of Burroughs’ cut-up technique to compose lyrics for a variety of albums.) For Bangs, then, Bowie’s experimentation with pastiche wasn’t innovative, but antithetical to the rock star’s mode of expression. In that same review, Bangs calls Bowie “as accomplished an eclectician (aka thief) as Elton John,” with “a facade as brittle as it was icy.” There’s a clear critique of Bowie’s music as lacking in authentic expression, a flaw that apparently keeps songs like “Starman” from being valuable as rock songs. Bangs is not alone in painting Bowie as a dilettante, flitting from style to style as it suits him. The really important strain in this line of criticism, though, is that by co-opting expressions that aren’t his own, David Bowie is essentially creating false music, music that shouldn’t be valued as rock.

This criticism of inauthenticity isn’t unique to Bangs, and it isn’t completely gone from rock criticism. We might look to the “rockism” of about ten years ago as more recent corroboration: critics like Kelefa Sanneh have taken issue with the (predominantly white, straight, and male) critical establishment’s tendency to dismiss anything that isn’t “authentic” as not worthy of the label “rock” and, consequently, not worthy of admiration. These positions seem to be fading from popularity. At a remove of forty years, it’s a bit difficult to work up the vitriol Bangs seems to feel. Yes, Bowie openly modeled his own work on that of others. In a 2002 interview, he likened this stylistic variation to “finding different doors” to the same destination. By championing this artificiality and frequent change, Bowie and his glam contemporaries in large part paved the way for postmodern work, things like Beck’s Odelay (in the pop-rock arena) or the sample-heavy Paul’s Boutique. In these early days of Bowie’s career, such wide-ranging borrowing was not the accepted norm, particularly not in rock music.

On top of musical borrowing, Bowie frequently adopted personae for each new album of the 1970s. He not only acknowledged the allegation that these works were not authentic, but actually emphasized that inauthenticity. That isn’t David Bowie singing “Starman” in the video above, but Ziggy Stardust. Bowie cultivated an inauthenticity that went against the grain of expectations and, in doing so, opened that door for many artists to follow.

Without Ziggy, could we have had Sasha FierceSlim Shady? All of Tori Amos’s American Doll Posse? In the years since Bowie’s early albums, musical landscapes changed in countless ways. His records, though, still sound new and vital, in large part because of the multitudes they hold. Bowie’s creations—Ziggy, Aladdin SaneHalloween Jack, the Thin White Duke, and more—populate these albums, bringing to them a unique and, yes, “inauthentic” point of view. Even in Blackstar, released two days before Bowie’s death, we can find a new persona (perhaps “Lazarus”?), exploring existential themes with the support of a jazz combo on some songs. In these characters we can find the seeds of a newer pop-rock sensibility.

“Let all the children boogie,” indeed.

For Discussion

  1. Survey some current rock journalism (see, for example, Rolling Stone, NME, Pitchfork, or Paste). Can you find echoes of an “authenticity” critique like Lester Bangs’ criticism of Bowie? You might pay particular attention to reviews of Blackstar.
  2. “Starman” contains a variety of clear influences, but other songs on Ziggy Stardust point to one or two important references each. Can you find connections to other pop musicians’ work in “Lady Stardust,” “Suffragette City,” or “Rock and Roll Suicide”?
  3. What other artists have frequently adopted new genres or styles on different albums? Can you think of a purpose for their eclecticism (like Bowie’s)?

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