Loving the Alien

Ziggy Stardust and Self-Conscious Celebrity

How to Cite

Rintoul, S. (2004). Loving the Alien: Ziggy Stardust and Self-Conscious Celebrity. M/C Journal, 7(5). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2408
Vol. 7 No. 5 (2004): 'fame'
Published 2004-11-01

In a 2003 Rolling Stone review of David Bowie’s 1972 concept album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, one critic looks back and argues that “[the creation of] Ziggy was a shrewd move because it presented Bowie, the fledgling artiste, as an established rock star.” Bowie’s shrewdness, the author muses, lies in the fact that he created in Ziggy “rock’s first completely prepackaged persona,” and inscribed it over his own. Whether or not Ziggy was indeed the first such persona (one asks oneself if all celebrities are not, to a degree, prepackaged personae), Bowie’s self-reflexivity in attaining this level of celebrity mystique was nothing short of ingenious. In inventing Ziggy Stardust, the ultimate ready-made rock and roll star, and becoming ‘him’ on stage and vinyl, Bowie conflated his own blossoming celebrity status with larger-than-life stardom. Ironically, Bowie achieved this end not by aligning himself with a figure who seemed representative of mainstream ideology, but by aligning himself with one who could be the poster ‘boy’ for the margin. The album does, after all, feature Bowie as Ziggy the alien rock star; on tour Bowie even dressed the part. Ziggy is, to borrow William Hope Hodgson’s term, “abhuman,” or not quite human: part man, part alien (Hurley 5). More precisely, as his flamboyant costumes and song lyrics suggest, Ziggy is not entirely male or female, straight or gay, earthling or extra-terrestrial. The only thing that is clearly identifiable about Ziggy is that ‘he’ is a star. I use quotation marks around masculine pronouns because Ziggy is David Bowie in drag; he gestures towards the instability of gender categories. Accordingly, Ziggy embodies a citation of regulatory norms that can actually disrupt rather than affirm these norms (Butler 174). Indeed, my choice of ‘he’ over ‘she’ is arbitrary at best, and at worst it is the effect of the social meanings derived from sexual difference. But Bowie disrupts more than masculinity or femininity through Ziggy; his performance of celebrity points to persona production as much as his drag gestures towards gender’s constructedness. The question that this short article seeks to answer is how Bowie/Ziggy can be read as a mode of celebrity correlated to self-consciousness about its own production, and how such a reading might rethink discourses of the star that associate the augmentation of celebrity to the integrity of its facilitating structures.

Ziggy was born into the ‘real’ world with a hyperreal fan base; he is a fictional character with fictional fans. Ultimately, just as Jean Baudrillard argues that the map of the real precedes its territory (1), Ziggy’s imaginary fans became an actual audience. So, with ‘real’ fans to adore and emulate him, Ziggy brought to centre stage a host of ambiguities and categorical transgressions typically confined to the margin. This shifting of the marginal seems to reveal that Ziggy Stardust – and, by extension, David Bowie – carried a certain degree of ideological power over his (their) audience. The Ziggy phenomenon thus complicates Francesco Alberoni’s theory that celebrities come into being when the needs of a given community to discuss social attitudes and behaviour are not being met. Alberoni suggests that although these needs can be negotiated through the celebrity image, the celebrity himself has a relatively small amount of institutional power: he is merely a symptom, a reflection, of what is already needed by the public. Yet as a fabricated persona that precedes his audience, Ziggy does more than reflect unmet audience needs to transgress; he embodies a prefabrication of these needs intended for commodification and mass cultural consumption. Of course, as I have mentioned, one could argue that all celebrity functions in this way. The difference between Ziggy Stardust and most celebrities is that, as a performance of celebrity, he reveals the machinery behind the prefabrication of what an audience longs for or needs. This is of course not to confuse a Bulterian performativity with performance; Bowie’s album and concerts performed Ziggy and were performative of celebrity (again, Butler’s discussion of drag provides a helpful analogy). And because behind Ziggy there was always David Bowie, already a nascent rock star, and because Bowie’s growing celebrity was symbiotically bound to his creation, Ziggy can be said to have been a Bowie parody.

Richard DeCordova suggests that the escalation of celebrity status depends the perceived integrity of the system that facilitates that celebrity (ie. film, music or television industries) (28). But Bowie’s performance of Ziggy calls the integrity of the entire constellation of stardom into question in two fundamental ways. First, Ziggy’s celebrity is dependent on transgressing cultural norms. It may seem counterintuitive to the augmentation of celebrity for David Bowie to portray a character possessing the numerous marginal traits Ziggy Stardust does. Yet critics tend to agree that it is precisely these eccentricities that have popularized Ziggy, and by extension, Bowie. Richard Grossinger, for example, uses both Ziggy’s sexual ambiguity and status as an alien to maintain the notion that celebrity provides a forum through the collective audience might fulfill its need to renegotiate what constitutes acceptable social attitudes and behaviours. Grossinger notes that flying saucer “addicts” often suffer from gender confusion that manifests in their descriptions of “encounters” with aliens. That is, the alien becomes an androgynous, transsexual reflection of the individual who perceives/imagines it (55). In the case of the gender-confused flying saucer addict, “the spaceman is [their] saviour from traditional male-female roles because he is neither male nor female” (56). In this sense, the spaceman, not unlike a Weberian charismatic leader (see Williams), reflects the unmet needs of those who view/construct him; he transgresses Earth’s genetic and social boundaries in ways that Earthlings cannot. Grossinger argues that David Bowie’s portrayal of Ziggy Stardust – bisexual, androgynous space man/woman – makes him one such “saviour” for his audience in that he similarly reflects their latent desires to cross these boundaries.

Several popular images of Bowie in the media seem to avow this reading of his celebrity status as something redeeming for audiences by virtue of its link to both gender ambiguity and alienness. Yet Grossinger forgets that Ziggy Stardust is not merely the apparition of an unstable science-fiction fanatic, but a tangible figure whose ambiguous traits are more than the fruits of a collective imagination. Ziggy’s physical presence makes Grossinger’s link between alienness and popularity suspect. The second way that Ziggy calls the integrity of celebrity into question, then, is through his self-reflexive gestures to his own constructedness. For example, the album’s juxtaposition of songs about an alien drag queen rocker who will ‘blow the minds’ of Earth’s children, with “Star” – about a young man’s decision to transform himself into a rock and roll celebrity persona – seems to subtly imply Bowie’s self-consciousness about his own construction of such a persona to achieve fame. Moreover, of course, Just as Ziggy’s songs are written narratives, so Ziggy himself is a parodic celebrity, a creation of David Bowie’s. Accordingly, the notion that Ziggy the starman can reflect the needs of his audience to transgress social and sexual boundaries is equally artificial.

The duality of the alien figure affirms my distrust of Ziggy’s celebrity as a fulfillment of his audience’s unmet needs. In fact, there is an inherent paradox to the argument that the alien figure functions in this way. Grossinger astutely identifies the ‘alien as marginal as unexplored aspect of self allegory.’ Yet the allegorical connotations of alienness can also detach the audience from the celebrity/leader. Grossinger’s allegory is thus always undercut by another metaphor: the alien as the ultimately foreign and unfamiliar. In this sense, Ziggy might reflect not his audience’s desires, but rather the impossibility of familiarity with his audience: celebrity itself as alien and elusive. It is impossible, after all, to appease each articulation of collective desire, if such a concept even has a potential reality. To further complicate matters, Ziggy’s alienness might connote Bowie’s distance from the alien, a mechanism to vouchsafe Bowie the celebrity from any self-conscious critique Ziggy might embody. Making Ziggy an alien thus sets up the illusion of a distinction between Ziggy the constructed celebrity and Bowie the ‘real’ one. In this way, Bowie manages to both expose and disguise the nature of celebrity construction in terms of audience needs.

Because Ziggy is one star inscribed onto another, his pre-packaged celebrity is pointedly parodic, and targets not only the work of the culture industry, but David Bowie as a manifestation of the culture industry. This parody renders unto Bowie a problematic duplicity; he becomes both culture industry, creator of Ziggy Stardust – who is self-reflexive of the creation of his “Bowie” level of stardom – as well as product of the culture industry – Ziggy Stardust and David Bowie the celebrities. Ziggy Stardust, then, embodies not only the overlapping of man and woman, male and female, or human and alien, but also of production and product, and implicates Bowie as manifestation of the culture industry in the fabrication of audience need. Bowie has used Ziggy Stardust to perpetuate and authenticate his own fame even as he uses him to reveal the manipulation of audience desire that makes this possible. In this light, Bowie’s celebrity depends to some extent on his paradoxical disillusionment with and perpetuation of the culture industry’s powers of manipulation. Thus, David Bowie’s creation of Ziggy Stardust achieves a level of shrewdness yet to be tapped into by rock journalists or celebrity theorists: the augmentation of fame through parodying celebrity’s ideological manipulation of the audience.

Although Bowie provides a particularly jarring example of this mode of achieving celebrity, surely it is not unique to Ziggy Stardust (think Marilyn Manson, and perhaps even Dame Edna). Such explicitly parodic celebrities implicate themselves in the culture industry’s deception. The question that remains concerns the extent to which the popularity derived from this implication reflects a paradoxical mode of celebrity-weary fandom.

Author Biography

Suzanne Rintoul