The rock and roll scene in the early 1970s--suffocating under the corpulent self-seriousness of too many pseudo-folk musicians--was ripe for threshing. Established musicians like T. Rex and David Bowie turned their back on peace, love and acoustic guitars, and donned new stage personae: wearing heavy make-up, glitter and flamboyant costumes, twisting gender roles, and flaunting lyrics that spoke in the same words as an increasingly vocal group of young people. (1) A host of other acts from Elton John to Slade quickly adopted similar ideas into their own acts, in many cases launching or advancing careers that would otherwise have crashed and burned.
Glam rock rose like the sun and set almost as quickly, its light fading away in barely five years, but it left a legacy that still resonates in contemporary music. (2) Considering the importance of glam in the history of rock, wouldn't it be interesting to ask Ziggy Stardust himself what he currently thinks about the whole spectacle that he helped kick off in 1971? An obvious approach would be to call up David Bowie's publicist and request an audience with the singer; however the reclusive heathen tends to (graciously) decline interviews with obscure writers of experimental fiction. So, what options do we have to answer this (or any other) rock and roll question? Could we possibly find the answers hiding in the body of work Bowie left for us over the years?
1. Even the Church of England Newspaper commented positively on the androgynous glam rock youth culture as "a meaningful experience for 1973."
It's easy enough to look at Bowie's songs as straightforward texts accompanied by music--ignoring for a moment how the significance of Bowie's (or anyone's) text shifts through time (3) -- reading the words and assigning meaning, saying "he meant this" and interpreting the chosen text as a story (4) There is no shortage of Bowie songs addressing fashion, style and glamour, and Bowie's back catalog certainly contains enough lexicology to stitch together a plausible story arc just from his album titles. (5)
Hunky dory pin ups, young Americans (low "heroes"). Scary monsters never let me down. Tin machine outside reality, the next day.
Unfortunately, such a simplistic interpretation bars Bowie's listeners from accessing the deeper strata of meaning within his work, but it is possible to perform a bit of textual archaeology and uncover the various connotations within each individual song. A Bowie fan might start by dismantling his songs and running a statistical analysis on the number of times words appear. (6) Attempts have been made to reverse engineer the perfect Bowie song using this method, but ultimately resulted in some basic conclusions about Bowie's incorporation of social processes and a brief Internet curiosity piece. (7) Obviously, just pulling the lyrics apart is fairly simple, unfortunately this de-contextualization leaves us with little more than a set of words with numbers corresponding to their frequency of appearance.(8) As Derrida points out, a text cannot by analyzed by breaking down its individual components and seeking meaning in them separately…there is no meaning outside context. Fortunately, Derrida does allow for the deconstruction and exegesis of Bowie's material within a hermeneutical framework. (9)
None of this is to suggest a haphazard methodology. For instance, choosing a handful of words from a Bowie song and leaving the bulk of the text behind could, of course, give us almost any meaning we want to make. (10) From within the limited bounds of "Ziggy Stardust" a reader could tear out, "we were the weird white band that became God," or the equally ludicrous, "good spiders love light beer." (11)Obviously, if we seek some sort of true meaning, we must avoid warping the original text when introducing it to our contemporary context. Adhering to Gadamer's principles--experience is not fixed but changes and always indicates new perspectives--makes it possible to excavate multiple meanings from even a single Bowie song by deconstructing then reconstructing it within the contextual matrix of the questions we want answered. (12) In this manner we can interview the text. This isn't an easy process. To ensure fidelity when reconstructing a text, the reader must scrupulously retain every single word from the song, much as a real-world archaeologist uses every fragment of fossil to build a skeleton. If you have words that do not "fit" within your new text, then your new text is incorrect. Uncovering the meaning hidden amongst the lexical and syntactic ambiguities of a limited pool of words can be daunting. As an example, let's approach "Ziggy Stardust" (the song, not the character) with the question of Bowie's feelings about the glam rock movement. Keep in mind that we are encouraging the text to shift within the confines of itself (13) to answer our question. Often the song's response simply rephrases the text's literal meaning, its original "story".
He had it all: God-given tan, gilly-lick hairdo, sang from his balls and played man-made messiah. The fans hung on his ziggy hands like spiders but could break into a mind, could crush ego like a fly.
The Nazz, man
He killed 'em.
We sucked up the love, making up our ziggy eyes with white light while jamming with that weird voodoo. We were just kids. He tried to guide us by the hand. "Should just leave 'em smiling." Took us to Japan. We were special, but far from good.
The ziggy spiders were kids too, and were: Play guitar…guitar…guitar!
So we played…played…played. Jiving down some ziggy well.
Time, crass leper, really screwed up the band. Beer, ass and sweet ziggy snow. The boy became the man, far too screwed then to mind about the break.
He had it with the ziggy band. So, it came to when he left, and we bitched…could so hang his ziggy cat.
He was loaded for where?
"Ziggy Stardust" is a particularly recalcitrant interview subject, but a clever investigator can always find a way to encourage new dialogue. After pressuring "Ziggy" repeatedly, the song finally opened up and revealed a fairly direct commentary on glam rock's rise and fall, the musician's role as cultural luminary and the shift in public reaction over the years.
Ziggy kids, by then, had the ego to break with the crass tan band. They could crush and hang it. Should leave "the man" to like it. Given, "the man" could like ziggy kids, he could play with 'em. But he bitched about fly balls, and he had his love for beer.
The good ziggy boy hung his hand, screwed on his light band that played some jiving guitar lick into his ziggy hairdo.
We were so loaded with mind spiders from Japan where guitar fans were special and a ziggy cat from Mars, "the Nazz with smiling hands," was so sweet he killed 'em.
We played messiah when we made up gilly eyes and sang voodoo. Became the white ziggy guide.
But we took it so far, were just...were really too weird.
Time sucked us down, screwed us, came to break up the snow spiders, jamming God up our ass while "the man" he played his leper guitar and tried making it all well.
We just played too far to the left.
Here is where a literature review of interviews with Bowie after 2001 reveals that the meaning we have excavated from "Ziggy Stardust" is fairly close to its creator's personal sentiments. (14) It is also here where readers of this article may ask, "what was the point? We could just read what Bowie said." Which is correct, but is also the crux of the matter. We can ask the same question of the music and the maker, and then correlate the answers. We can check our work, which in this case is correct. Obviously, this single analysis of one song cannot stand as unequivocal proof that Bowie's entire catalog would respond similarly to hermeneutic analysis, but it does point in a positive direction, encouraging further investigation. And, here is the point, if we can verify the results of our experiments against the answers of a creator who outlived his creations by decades, it stands to reason that we could apply the same analytical methodology to works left behind by musicians such as Marc Bolan who did not get to see their work grow old and reflect upon its significance.
2. Some fans consider that 21st century groups like Queens of the Stone Age aren't so much inspired by Bolan and Bowie as exploiting their glam rock conventions to sell records. It can be difficult to argue with this viewpoint when Saint Laurent designer Hedi Slimane openly pillaged the 1970's rock and roll wardrobe for his summer 2014 collection.
3. Hans-Georg Gadamer expounded on how the "fusion of horizons" allows a scholar to discover where a song's history articulates with his own, and applied this concept to Bowie's cavalcade of stage personae in "Wer bin Ich und Wer ist der Mann, der vom Himmel Fiel."
4. Umberto Eco began his exhaustive semiotic analysis of Bowie's entire recording history, including lexical variations in live recordings, in the tenth anniversary issue (1981) of Versus: Quaderni di Studi Semiotici, adding new chapters with each subsequent issue. He has yet to complete this Herculean task.
5. Admittedly, I plagiarized this idea directly from P. J. O'Rourke's Rolling Stonearticle "Great Balls of Fire, Joshua! Touch Your Woman!" about Dolly Parton's discography.
6. Not surprisingly, "the" takes first place as most common word in "Ziggy Stardust" with "Ziggy" running a close second. But "a" appears only once in the entire song and ties for last place with "gilly", "leper" and "hairdo".
7. Dr. Nicholas Troop's "The 'Ideal' Bowie Song: A Psycholyrical Analysis" made the rounds of various popular culture and psychology blogs in 2009 http://youtu.be/IHm1MDnaZnw however it was meant as a commentary on how a person's mental state affects their success rather than a serious analysis of Bowie's word choices.
8. Michael Drosnin argues in The Devil's Chord that arrays of numbers derived from songs can be decoded to reveal prophetic messages, but I'll leave this notion in the hands of conspiracy theorists searching for evidence of the Illuminati.
9. In 1988 Derrida rephrased his oft misunderstood quote "there is nothing outside the text" to the infinitely more encompassing "there is nothing outside context" and in his 1989 article, "Diamond Star Halo," offered examples of how this "less shocking formula" applied to T Rex's Electric Warrior.
10. For a successful example of redactive textual interpretation, see Tom Phillips,Humument, Fifth edition, 2012. http://www.humument.com/intro.html
11. In his 2008 tongue-in-cheek review of glam rock history We Came From Mars to Lick Ass, Ian Christe posits this and similar motivations for Bowie's mercurial personality. 12. Martin Heidegger considered reciprocity between text and context to be the "hermeneutic circle" and relates it to power-chord and lyric structure in Hermeneutik von Saiten und Stimmen.
13. Much like Bowie shifts from character to character, often metamorphosing in the space of minutes, yet he still remains "Bowie".
14. "It was very playful at the beginning...this Vaudeville-ian-based English idea of pop music in all its Dickie-pride tackiness. The audience reaction was just unbelievable for the Ziggy shows. It's all about fashion in England. It's all about the trousers. My trousers have changed the world...I cut up the world and reassembled it...About six months out on the road I was fed up with the damn thing. Christ, what am I going to be bloody Ziggy for the rest of my life?...It did a lot better for my offstage life to not carry a character around...I wouldn't inflict fame on my worst enemy. Fame, what is it good for? Absolutely fuck all." Excerpts from the 2002 documentary "The Story of David Bowie".