David Bowie - Starman (Live on Top of the Pops 1972)
It is difficult in 2014 to understand how truly significant this performance was in terms of its shock factor and cultural significance. In 1972, the image of a quite prettily made-up young man draping his arm delicately around the shoulders of his equally dressed up male bandmate was revolutionary. There are countless anecdotes of impressionable British youth watching the performance and feeling as if they were witness to the future—a new world of sexual ambiguity and subversive, androgynous beauty—all while their disapproving parents looked on. The performance is cited by many as an early sexual awakening, the first glimpse of the possibility of an existence outside prescribed norms of gender and sexuality.
“Starman” was the lead single off of Bowie’s 1972 masterpiece The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which is a concept record following the story of a Martian rock and roller named Ziggy Stardust who brings a message of hope and sexual liberation to the people of Earth. “Starman” describes the moment when Ziggy transmits his intentions to the radios of the planet’s youth. The song is intentionally reminiscent of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz and functions as a kind of 1970s science fiction version of Dorothy’s dreamy longing for another world. But rather than Dorothy being swept up into a bizarre, new realm, the bizarreness instead is an outside force invading our own world, disseminating its message across the planet. The alien invasion foretold in the song is actualized in Bowie’s own invasion of the television sets of an unsuspecting British public, and his message is not quite of hope, but of revolution.
Bowie had specifically set out to craft a rock and roll revolution. As he would go on to say in 2002, “For me and several of my friends, the seventies were the start of the twenty-first century.” It is Bowie’s acute social awareness that made his revolution a success. He was able to embody the shifting notions of gender and sexuality not only emerging in the early 1970s but also which would continue to develop on into the new century he was looking to herald. Ziggy Stardust had landed.
1. I’ve read commentary on Bowie saying he always knew what was cool first - he was into aliens before that was cool, he was into androgyny before that was cool, well, David Bowie was into David Bowie before that was cool.
2. The biggest moment of culture shock I’ve ever had was dealing with someone about my age who’d never listened to a David Bowie album. I was twenty-two, she was twenty-one, we came from similar backgrounds and walks of life, and she’d never heard a David Bowie album.
Fortunately, I had Ziggy Stardust on my MP3 player.