In this essay I will discuss, how The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars (1973) displays a postmodern aesthetic. When discussing the album Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars it is just as important to consider the live show created by Bowie that ties in with the postmodernist idea behind the album.
“Postmodernism: Generally refers to a new aesthetic sensibility that emerged in the 1960s, characterized by a breakdown of the boundaries between high art and mass culture, the re-emergence of explicit political and social concerns in art, the often ironic juxtaposition of references to heterogeneous historical or cultural styles, the rejection of modernism’s utopian progressivism.” (Cox & Warner, 2008) It comes directly after the modernist period, The ‘Make it New!” period, which specifically focussed on progress and insists on a clear divide between art and popular culture. Postmodernism questions these ideas.
The breaking down of hierarchical structures: crossovers and new genres in postmodernism.
Bowie’s musical work cannot be broken down into ‘high art’ and ‘mass culture’, as it is not easily distinguishable. Mass culture derives from the set of ideas that come from common exposure to the same media sources (television, radio & newspapers). High art is created by a culturally renowned artist that is not available to the lower classes. (Adorno 1944)
Bowies work on this album deconstructs this binary opposition. This album attained commercial success, whilst simultaneously achieving a crossover between high art ideas (literature, classical music and avant garde theatre for example) and popular music.
There are many artistic crossovers that can be found on the Ziggy album. Through the use of bricolage and polystylism, Bowie fused art, fashion, theatre, film, literature, high art (classical) music, pop music and choreography into the Ziggy and the Spiders album and show. The album reached number 5 in the UK pop charts but was the first of its kind to reference so many styles of high art fused in with what was regarded as ‘pop music’.
The Ziggy album consists of many theatrical rock songs, usually highlighted by the guitar solos and dramatic instrumental sections. Ziggy and the Spiders are a standard four piece rock band however used styles and instrumentalists from other more classical genres.
For example the track Moonage Daydream fuses orchestral instruments like flute, horn and string sections which contrast with the large (rock influenced) guitar solo during the middle 8 section of the song. There are many orchestral instruments used in the recording of this album. Fusing high culture instruments with typically mass culture oriented rock/pop music.
Kabuki theatre influence
Bowie’s interest in Kabuki theatre plays a large role in his postmodern aesthetic.
During his time studying with and working alongside the avant-garde choreographer Lindsay Kemp, Bowie was introduced to Kabuki. Kabuki is a traditional form of Japanese theatre.
“…they (kabuki performers) are the focus of attention through elaborate costumes and vivid makeup…Through exaggerated vocalisation and highlighted with picturous settings and colourful music, kabuki actors create dramatic effects of extraordinary intensity within the framework of pure entertainment”
Bowie used many techniques used by Kabuki actors such as Onnagata, Koroku actors and elaborate makeup and costumes during his live shows. Ziggy’s makeup was styled similarly to the Kumadori. (The makeup worn in Kabuki theatre) Traditionally the hero of the story wears red suji (heroic red lines).
“Extravagant transformational makeup like this is to generate the suspension of disbelief in the audience so that they can accept the convention that they are in the presence of supernatural beings during the performance.”
Both of these factors tie in with the character Ziggy, a ‘supernatural’ alien coming to save the world through music. Shown by Bowie through Kabuki makeup and costume. Bowies costume changes on stage can be compared to Kabuki. Koroku actors are the stagehands in Kabuki, they stay with the artist on stage and help them as needed throughout the show. There is no attempt to hide the performance…realism was not emphasised.
The re-emergence of explicit political and social consents in Art
Film & Literature
“I had just seen A Clockwork Orange and had been galvanised not only Kubrick’s startling visualization of Burgess’s novel but also his take on chic youth outfits” (Bowie, 2002)
The novel by Anthony Burges is social commentary on youth gangs, politics, juvenile delinquency set in a dystopian Britain. Bowie dressed his ‘spiders’ like the ‘droogs’ from the film adaption of the novel.
The Droogs are also mentioned in the song Suffragette City. This was a clear reference to A Clockwork Orange’ “the central protagonists of which were termed droogs” (Cinque, Moore & Redmond, 2015) The novel is set in a near dystopian future much like the dystopian future Bowie sings about in the opening track on the album “Five Years”.
“Five years was exactly the sort of technological vision that Stanley Kubrick foresees in A Clockwork Orange.”(Cinque, Moore, Redmond. 2015) The album follows the story of the protagonist Ziggy Stardust, an alien rock star who comes to save the earth with music that “will blow our minds.” with his band the Spiders from Mars.
Dressing the ‘Spiders’ in similar fashion to the ‘Droogs’ from A Clockwork Orange, I can’t help but feel the title track Ziggy Stardust is yet another reference to the novel. Here Ziggy the leader of the band is consumed by fame. The song was “written from the perspective of a jealous band member-the lyrics reflect the rift between the star and his backing musicians” much like the rift between Alex and his ‘Droogs’ in the novel. The track documents Ziggy’s downfall much like Alex’s once he has been left by his droogs at the door of the wealthy older woman.
Every Ziggy Stardust show started with Beethoven’s 9th symphony. A favourite piece of the teenage protagonist Alex in the novel.
GENDER & SEXUALITY
In Kabuki theatre there are many female roles, however they are not played by women, these roles are played by male actors known as Onnagata. It is an impersonation with the emphasis on artistic performance. This is significant when we look at Bowies costumes. Known for his androgynous look, Bowie often wore women’s clothes on stage.
“Another link between Bowie and postmodernism is the way in which he contributed to breaking down barriers between sexual identities… Bowie himself often spoke about his bisexuality. If postmodernity is about dedifferentiation…then Bowies blurred sexulaity may be one of the greatest contributions any rock star has made to postmodern culture.” (Holborn)
He forced the public to think about gender conformity and sexual identity through his androgynous image and his sexually suggestive lyrics. Moonage Daydream is a track that revolves around sexual freedom & religion. It introduces us to the character Ziggy as deviant and rebellious.
“Don’t fake it baby, lay the real thing on me
The church of man, love, is such a holy place to be”
“Freakout in a moonage daydream”
An ironic juxtaposition of references to heterogeneous historical or cultural styles.
Bowie used Bricolage for the formation of his character Ziggy. By definition bricolage is “a construction or creation from a diverse range of available things”
The Ziggy Stardust character was created by basing Ziggy on previous rock stars and Kabuki theatre that Bowie was influenced by. “Sampling from multiple archetypal rock ‘figures’ including Jimi Hendrix, Lou Reed, Marc Bolan, Bob Dylan and others”
Vince Taylor for example believed himself to be a mixture between a God and an alien.
As well as his Japanese theatre inspired makeup and dress, the alien rockstar was created.
“David Bowie as a celebrity, and Ziggy as a persona, simultaneously maintain a timeless pedagogical function organized around their revolutionary aesthetic and the strength of their sexual power, argues Rojek( 2001:117-34), who saw the construction of Ziggy as a Bricolage of style, androgyny, flamboyance and bisexuality, providing a new iconography of generational change.”
The fusion of mass culture and high art is hard to distinguish in The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars. The album reached number 5 in the UK album charts in 1972 and every concert had a significant audience. Due to its large scale success at the time it was released, it is thought to be the first postmodern album. This is due to the juxtaposition of its commercial success and postmodern aesthetic.
With references to theatre, culture, popular artists, mass culture, high art, bricolage, politics and literature. “I suppose for me as an artist it wasn’t always just about expressing my work; I really wanted more than anything else, to contribute in some way to the culture that I was living in.” (Bowie)
Ironically, though David Bowie consciously created the postmodern popstar I’m not sure anyone could have predicted the success he achieved.