Multimedia: Click to listen to Jack Brady and Jeremy Haas discuss Ziggy Stardust
BY JACK BRADY
“Strange people are chosen, and through their art move progress along.” Such are the words spoken to fictional David Bowie doppelganger Brian Slade in the 1998 film Velvet Goldmine. Part rock opera, part biopic, part surrealist exploration, the film succeeds as its own, unique story. But when seen through the eyes of a pop culture historian, it is but one rather prominent facet of a much greater phenomenon; the enduring legacy of one of the most profound musical works of the past century: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
As a progenitor to the modern concept album, every aspect of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust’s music is a facet of it’s own universe. Opening track “Five Years” introduces the labyrinthine storyline of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust’s world, in which a shortage of natural resources leaves the earth only so many years left to live and ushers in a de facto apocalypse. Adults across the world have disconnected from reality altogether, and children find all of the material objects they coveted theirs for the taking. Enter Ziggy Stardust, an androgynous alien sent to save earth through the power of rock n roll. Yet Ziggy’s music falls upon deranged and deaf ears. Desperate for fame, Ziggy begins to preach of imminent celestial saviors in “Starman”, and finds himself the center of a massive cult of personality, reveling in the archetypal rock star throes of sex, drugs, and fame. Yet when the almighty saviors of whom Ziggy preaches arrive, they turn out to be extraterrestrial tourists. Before meandering on to another universe, the starmen decide to take bits of the messiah-like Ziggy with them as souvenirs, while he performs to his masses of disciples in one final, extravagant show. As he is slowly ripped apart onstage in the climactic, cathartic, album-closer “Rock n Roll Suicide”, he leaves one last message to his followers: “Take my hands, cause you’re wonderful, take my hands.”
For all of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust’s mind-boggling perplexities and ludicrous fiction, the album is firmly grounded in Bowie’s life. Much of Ziggy is a hodgepodge collection of concepts and ideas inspired by and borrowed from Bowie’s contemporaries. Ziggy’s character and name were inspired by the “Legendary Stardust Cowboy” Vince Taylor, a labelmate of Bowie’s whom he met after Taylor underwent a mental breakdown and believed himself to be an alien-god hybrid. The classic tale of a rock star destroyed by both his own ego and his fans and the garish aesthetics of the world Ziggy inhabits are all reflections of Bowie’s personal trials and the times in which he lived. Most apparent is the then-unasked question, as posed in the album’s original Rolling Stone review, “Just how big and tough is your rock & roll star? How much of him is bluff and how much inside is frightened and helpless?” The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust hurled Bowie into superstardom, with legions of devoted fans running the gamut from the LGBT community to all-around societal outcasts. Regardless of their backgrounds, all were thoroughly spurned by society and all found a hero in Bowie’s androgynous, otherworldly and charismatic alter ego. Yet for the artist himself, the lines between the man David Bowie and the alien Ziggy Stardust were beginning to blur. This sudden flood of fame, wealth, and fans overwhelmed Bowie, whose ego inflated beyond the constraints of his sanity and sent him, in his own words, on a “Trail of chaotic psychological destruction. You become what is called a drug casualty at the end of it all.” While the ensuing conflict created serious personal trials that would have profound effects on Bowie’s life, career, and talent, Ziggy Stardust also, for better or worse, forever changed the music world.
In the year of the album’s release, much of the music world had still not shaken off the effects of the 60s, as fabricated pop groups like The Monkees and the remnants of the hippie era dominated the airwaves. Light-years ahead of its time, the eclectic futurism of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust was not limited to the lyrical content alone, distorted space-age guitar solos, strained and broken vocal refrains, smoldering, syncopated rhythms, are all aspects of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust’s sound that would reshape the musical landscape. While the album is certainly the grandest spectacle of glam rock ever produced, within it lies the nascent origins of countless other genres. From its aggression and distortion, punk, from its romance and synthesizer melodies new wave, and yet more important than any of its theatrics or sounds, were the questions the album posed to the consciousness of rock n roll. The dark side of the rock n roll lifestyle and the psychological downward spiral of pop-star idolization were revolutionary concepts to the music world of the early seventies. Such exploration of the nefarious side of stardom, let alone one as autobiographical as The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust’s had simply never been done before.
Yet, never has the ghost of Ziggy Stardust haunted the music world more so than today. While glam rock has by no means been resurrected and given a facelift, rather, a new strain of glam aesthetics and sounds have virulently spread from the catwalks to the airwaves. Whether in the alien or antichrist personae of Marilyn Manson, or the meat dresses of Lady Gaga, the album’s influence can be seen everywhere. In terms of fashion, the vibrant, extraterrestrial outfits of Ziggy Stardust are echoed in the fashion choices of artists ranging from Nicki Minaj and Rihanna to Sufjan Stevens. Megastar Lady Gaga currently reigns over the modern pop scene, shattering the Billboard charts with every release and staging some of the most profitable (and extravagant) tours in years. While her fashion statements and musical themes are quite apparent to fans and non-fans alike, few realize that these qualities trace directly back to Bowie and glam. Gaga’s latest record, Born This Way possesses its own sinuous, cosmic lore, and by characterizing herself as the “Mother Monster”, is seen as “giving birth” to a new human race.
Yet the most profound, lasting legacy of Ziggy Stardust is it’s unification of conceptual rock n roll with social commentary. Rather than the blatant, in your face protest music of the decade before it, Bowie created his own reality in which to lash out against the one he found himself trapped in. Since then, countless bands have mastered this technique, and rock music has never been the same.
Adorning countless music magazine lists as the best album of the 90s, Radiohead’s decade-defining Ok Computer, which embodied the alienated and techno-shocked masses of the world captured the musicality of Ziggy Stardust, while follow-up Kid A would, as Bowie had done before them, shatter all preconceived notions of who they were as a band, what they could sound like, and reshape the landscape of music. Industrial legends Nine Inch Nails invented their own alternate reality game for their concept album Year Zero, where underground rebels living in a future America ruled by theology and fear left cryptic clues for fans across tour locations, from spectrographic images hidden inside tracks to haunting websites with filled with stolen “Bureau of Morality” documents. Fans who collected all the scattered, USB’s hidden in tour locales were rewarded with info leading to a special private concert -which ended halfway through in a staged SWAT raid. Year Zero’s apocalyptic atmosphere, repeated sonic cycles of death and rebirth are as chilling and foreboding as the alternate reality it spawned. If anything, the album is an entire 16 track immersion the heights of apocalyptic fear and dread in Stardust opener “Five Years”.
Ziggy Stardust’s creator thoroughly returned to earth after the album’s tour, moving both himself and his music in an entirely new directions. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, for all of its success, was but one chapter, however lengthy or memorable, in the life and music of David Bowie. Yet for the dejected masses he uplifted, for the generations he inspired, for all those who “took his hands”, the scattered pieces of Ziggy Stardust shine all around us like the stars from which he came.