Thursday, March 21, 2013

David Bowie makes a triumphant return but his pop culture legacy is tarnished

The rise and failure of Ziggy Stardust

Posted by Chris Haire on Thu, Mar 21, 2013 at 8:21 AM

The goats have all been gutted. The virgins have all been sacrificed. And we have played "Stairway to Heaven" backwards until our ears have bled. But now it's time to offer our gratitude to the Dark Prince of Pop Music, the glutenous and gaseous beast known as Fat Elvis. Thanks to him, and his never-ending appetite for the souls of pop's best, the world has been spared one malformed musical monstrosity after another.

So thank you, Fat Elvis, for taking Jimi Hendrix before his time.

And Jim Morrison.

And Janis Joplin.

And Duane Allman.

And Ronnie Van Zant.

And Bob Marley.

And Kurt Cobain.

And Layne Staley.

And Shannon Hoon.

And Amy Winehouse.

And John Fucking Lennon.

Because of you, we have been spared years and years of torment as the legacies of these pop music greats were undone by overly produced, studio-musician-driven schmaltz. Because of you, we don't have to bear witness to a world in which Kurt Cobain tackles the Great American Songbook. A world in which Janis Joplin serves as a guest mentor on American Idol. A world in which John Lennon pens the Oscar-nominated theme song to Disney's 53rd animated film, The Princess and the Pee-stained Sheets. Thank you, oh Fat One. Thank you.

And thank you for sparing the life of David Bowie. That was a good call.

See, unlike many of his pop music peers — Eric Clapton, Elton John, Aerosmith — the Thin White Duke is just as restlessly creative as he ever was, a fact that he has shown with his latest release, The Next Day.

Although a decade has passed between Bowie's last album, Reality, and his most recent, the rock icon is not content to rest on his bony white ass. In fact, The Next Day is one of the more decidedly weird and adventurous discs out there. Take "Dirty Boys" for instance. It's a creepy, vaudevillian nightmare-cum-straight-to-video softcore porn flick that is as catchy as it is disturbing. And then there's "How Does the Grass Grow," a robot-rock goosestepper that wouldn't be out of place on a Queens of the Stone Age disc, that is if Josh Homme and company mainlined the lonely, cybernetic screams of a long-forgotten Geocities homepage. And while there are certainly moments that recall Bowie's oeuvre from the 1970s ("You Feel So Lonely You Could Die" feels a bit like the reanimated still-born love child of Stardust's "Rock 'N' Roll Suicide" and Hunky Dory's "Life on Mars"), Bowie's 27th album is not an exercise in nostalgia, like say the debut disc from Thom Yorke's latest band, Atoms for Peace. That collection of regurgitation sounds more or less like every Radiohead album from the past decade.

But, sadly, as interesting as Bowie's new record is, as an artist his ability to influence culture at large vanished long ago. Even more depressing, his one true cultural achievement — the creation of the gender-bending rock star — has been abused like a Back Page sex slave by years of milquetoast mass-marketing prostitution, an onslaught of ho-humbuggery that has given us hair metal, Prince's assless chaps, Rock of Ages, and Dave Navarro's trailer-park trannie eyeliner. The truth of the matter is this: The sight of David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust finery, Iggy Pop in his glammed up Jean Genie dick-swinging best, or Lou Reed in quasi-drag mubbling drugged-out tales of drugged out boy-girls living in a drugged-out world is just as subversively explosive as it was 40 years ago.

Yes, society at large has learned to embrace gay culture — the battle for same-sex marriage has become the predominant struggle in the ongoing fight for civil rights, after all — but the masses have never fully accepted those who straddle the line between male and female, tomboy and gurl. In many ways, this problem is symptomatic of the same clearly defined sexual division that we see in today's Disney Princess culture — Tangled for girls, Cars for boys — except that we want gay people to be clearly gay and straight people to be clearly straight and no one can be a little of both — that is unless you're a comely co-ed on the CW or a Jersey shore stripper on MTV. If that's the case, then it's A-OK if you fool around with your best gal pal on TV. Of course, that's not really an issue of gender-blurring as much as it an example of the increased pornification of female sexuality, which isn't a triumph for womankind at all, but a step backward into pin-up girl objectivity.

However, there have been those who have seemingly challenged these notions of gender identity since the glory days of Iggy. Marilyn Manson had his little romp in the hermaphrodite hay with Omega and the Mechanical Animals — a hackneyed ripoff of Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars. And Lady Gaga shocked MTV Video Music Award watchers by pulling the same gender-swapping stunt Annie Lennox performed at the Grammys in the 1980s (Hell, Gaga even copied Lennox's costume all the way down to her greasy pompadour and Fat Elvis sideburns.) But what's most shocking here is that people today are as shocked by these latter-day gender-bending stunts as they were decades ago. In part this is due to the cultural white wash that the entertainment industry has slopped over pop culture in an effort to keep from offending the glass-menagerie sensibilities of the Religious Right, and part of it, is because America has the long-term memory of a pile of elephant dung.

This inability to remember pop culture's past adventures in gender-bending don't end there. One of the most talked about bits in last year's James Bond outing, Skyfall, was the sexually flirtatious interrogation scene between Javier Bardem's Silva and Daniel Craig's 007, a cinematic moment that should have elicited yawns not gasps. And then there's the minor PR blow-up that occurred when British actor Tom Hardy admitted that he had sexual dalliances with men when he was younger — his handlers immediately tried to spin his comments into something more palatable to Middle America — and the Hollywood press' strange fascination with James Franco's unwillingness to be defined in purely heterosexual-homosexual terms, a bit of Barnum-esque showmanship that has driven star watchers batty and made Franco the darling trollop of the entertainment press.

Of course, it didn't have to be like this. We could have forward on. In the wake of Ziggy Stardust, it looked as if rock 'n' roll might lead the charge toward true sexual liberation — a world not of gender equality and same-sex acceptance, but one of gender irrelevance. Instead, when it comes to our pop culture, today's entertainers are just as shackled by our society's outdated sexual mores as they were before David Bowie fell to Earth in a bright orange wig, knee-high platform shoes, and a technicolor catsuit.

But boy, could he play guitar.

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