50 years ago, David Bowie changed the course of music with the release of “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars”. While the songs are revered, the “Ziggy Stardust” persona’s place in the album’s success is rarely discussed beyond superficial awe. But how important is Ziggy as a character? Can a public figure really affect music?
For the purists, you might shout no, shout that sound is the only thing that matters. But really, it didn’t work for Bowie before.
David Jones had been releasing music since the early 1960s with The Konradsas davy jonesand even as david bowie, but had not yet had any real success. While the years 1969 “Space Curiosity” caught the eye thanks to the release of the moon landing at the right time, the fast fade of the track at the time suggested he was just a one-hit wonder, with albums like ‘Hunky-dory’ and ‘The man who sold the world’ being almost entirely ignored. Bowie was to be just another musician who enjoyed minor success before fading into obscurity.
That was until 1972. Stepping onto the Top Of The Pops stage with mullet, paper-pale skin and a tight leotard – a performance of “Starman” seemed to spawn Bowie-mania overnight. . Die-hard fans converted, fashion trends sprouted, Ziggy Stardust was born and David Bowie was iconized. By the end of the year, all of Bowie’s previous albums had charted, and an almost cult fanbase had formed.
This 1972 TOTP performance is widely considered to be the moment David Bowie became a star. But why was this performance different? It was the same voice, the same songwriting – not much had changed musically…
Well, it was the first time he debuted his first fully realized character: Ziggy Stardust, the androgynous, bisexual, rock star alien.
Before Bowie, very few musicians had used fictional characters, let alone one so unusual and unique. Upon meeting Ziggy, TOTP viewers were shocked, confused and amazed, but most of all they were intrigued – they had never seen anything like it.
First, viewers were greeted with Bowie’s bright blue guitar, intercut with intimate shots of his students’ anisocoria. Then, suddenly, they received Ziggy in all his glory: the quilted jumpsuit, the mop of orange hair, his arm around Mick Ronson as they shared the microphone… Bowie interpreted the strange, the taboo and the strange with confidence. He reached out, pointing the camera down and breaking the 4th wall to sing “I had to phone someone so I harassed you”, and suddenly you, the viewer, have been involved. It was at this exact moment that Bowie took hold of the nation, with fans everywhere calling it a “religious experiment.”
It was one of those rare performances that is widely considered a pivotal moment in music, one that changed the course of history, with a slew of musicians, including Boy George, Bono and Robert Smith, considering the performance as formative.
However, ‘Starman’ is rarely ranked as Bowie’s greatest track, rarely even appearing in his top 10. So while the music itself is undeniably excellent, it was Ziggy Stardust, his character, who propelled Bowie to fame.
A closer (scientific) look at the person of Ziggy Stardust:
Persona: the personality, the image and the small world around an artist. This includes gestures, costumes, and even facial expressions.
When humans make new connections, they create mental portfolios called “patterns” that promote feelings of “knowing” someone. However, when this process is one-sided, such as with a celebrity who cannot respond, a parasocial relationship forms. This remote intimacy allows for vulnerability without fear of rejection, and since a character works like a pre-made wallet, a fan can get to know an artist intimately and form a stronger connection, which in turn creates more dedicated fans.
There is a historical tendency to adopt characters that challenge mainstream culture during times of oppression – a character’s mask provides freedom of expression, and the bravery of abnormality affirms/validates feelings of ” otherness” of the spectator. Ziggy Stardust truly exemplified this balance of aspiration and escapism, with his “outsider” being the product of androgyny, bisexuality, and unapologetically alternative dress. This vulnerability in sharing taboo parts of oneself is normally reserved for close personal friendships, so Ziggy’s proud uniqueness fabricated the illusion of closeness to fans who had already felt chosen as Bowie was pointing the camera at TOTP.
Through the creation of Ziggy Stardust, Bowie told fans it was okay to be different. Subcultures emerge from the alienation of mainstream tastes, and through Ziggy, David Bowie is essentially orchestrating a cultural revolution. Fans identified with Ziggy Stardust, spending time exploring the dense world surrounding the character, collecting and immersing themselves in as much material as they could. Fans even dressed like him, with Bowie’s wife Angela noting that “Ziggy Stardust’s haircut was the most resounding fashion statement of the 70s”.
Ziggy created a fan base of weirdos who celebrated the taboo parts of themselves. Social Identity Theory would explain that those who feel like outsiders are more likely to strongly defend their “group”, with Ziggy Stardust’s expansive lore creating a knowledge barrier that has only rendered his fan base more dedicated and immersed “in group”, desperate to dig into the backstory that was slowly being created through live performances and lyricism.
However, the power of an iconic image cannot be ignored, and the real driving force behind Ziggy Stardust is visual. With Bowie noting that “it’s all about… the clothes,” it seems fitting that a quick Google search for “David Bowie” brings up a slew of Ziggy-first outfits, each more iconic than the next. Bowie created a visual feast that generated excitement just by existing, pushing the boundaries of color, shape and genre while telling a compelling story.
Without the Ziggy Stardust character, perhaps the album’s story would have felt less real and fewer people would have cared. Create a dense visual, sound and lyrical universe on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars, the album is as full and complete as any other Bowie release. Singing about hope, future technology, social stigma and youth revolution – the lyrical packed content would be a lot and no doubt some of it would be lost were it not for Ziggy, the narrator captivating.
Groundbreaking subjects are densely packed into the album – take Lady Stardust as an example. The perspective angle of ‘Lady Stardust’ discusses LGBT+ characters as they are, not through the eyes of stigma at the time. Lady Stardust’s androgyny is unquestioned, with lines like “Lady Stardust sang her songs” requiring no further explanation. There is comfort in lines such as “he was fine, the group was quite”– like while his authentic self was frowned upon, it would be fine as long as the band played. There’s solace in the unwavering acceptance as the characters “emerge]from the shadows to watch,” enchanted. And with all the weirdness and visual offerings of Ziggy, there’s almost something protective about it. For a while you can be outside the real world and it’s stigmatized, you can just be with it. By the time you get to ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’ with Bowie telling the listener directly “you’re not alone / No matter what or who you’ve been” – the character feels like a friend that you will listen to and believe.
It is not difficult to understand how one can be completely absorbed in the world of “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars”. For listeners, Ziggy Stardust was tangible proof that the unconventional, taboo parts of themselves didn’t make them broken or less lovable. The existence of Ziggy Stardust’s character created an additional aspect to connect with – something physical, something… “real”. It was Bowie’s balance of sound and vision (pun intended) that revolutionized what an artist could be, forever changing the future of music.
David Bowie receives a stone in the Music Walk Of Fame on September 22.