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“The Jean Genie” — the Video (1972)

How many times have I listened to “The Jean Genie?” Hundreds? Thousands? Whatever the number, it is a lot. So, it’s tough to approach the video as a standalone piece of art independent of the song. Of course, it isn’t supposed to be independent of the song, but to really home in on the video in preparation for writing this post, I watched it yet again but this time with the sound off.

Because I’m so familiar with the song, I can tell that Bowie and the Spiders are performing it. I know the words Bowie is singing and the notes the others, especially Mick Ronson, are playing. The images of them performing the song correspond with what I’d be hearing with the sound on. But the images tell us nothing at all about the song.

The bulk of the video, directed by legendary photographer and videographer Mick Rock, is a mix of concert footage and footage of Bowie and the band shot specifically for the video performing the song. These images alternate, so that even though we see the band in an actual concert toggling back and forth with images of them in front of a sterile white backdrop, the illusion is that they are performing the same song across time and space.

The most striking part of the genuine concert footage, for me, is Mick Ronson’s face. Having recently read Suzi Ronson’s memoir, Me and Mr. Jones, I’m reminded of a line she included about how Mick would be a different person on stage than he was off. He seems to be very emotionally involved with his playing, like he’s transported to a different place.

The most memorable aspect of the white-background footage is the stance of Bowie and the band—seemingly the model for Elton John’s liner art illustrating “Bennie and the Jets.” Aside, perhaps, from the Aladdin Sane cover image, the image of Bowie standing with his guitar, legs apart, with the band behind him is possibly the most iconic image of Ziggy Stardust.

But more memorable than all of that are the few seconds of footage showing Bowie in a rundown part of town, including standing in front of some place called the Mars Hotel. And then there’s Cyrinda Foxe popping in and out of the video. These fleeting images seal the deal for me.

Why? Well, wherever the Mars Hotel is (somewhere in San Francisco), it looks seedy. Bowie, with his leather jacket and overall strange appearance, looks threatening. Not threatening in a he’s-gonna-mug-me type of way, but threatening in a parents-don’t-let-your-daughters-(or sons)-hang-out-with-him sort of way.

And Cyrinda Foxe—she doesn’t even do anything overtly sexual, but she injects the video with sex appeal. Her face first appears when Bowie sings the line, “Talking ‘bout Monroe” (she looks like Marilyn Monroe). This might be the only connection between the words of the song and the images of the video. Anyway, taken together these brief images of Bowie and Foxe transform the video from the documentation of some strange-looking guys performing a song to a dangerous countercultural statement.

What’s missing from the video is any narrative enhancement to the song itself. We don’t see anything that can be reasonably inferred to be the Jean Genie, let alone the Jean Genie doing anything consistent with the lyrics. We’d have to wait until Todd Haynes’ movie Velvet Goldmine to get an idea of why the Genie loves chimney stacks.

Anyway, it all somehow works. But that’s the last time I watch this video without the sound!

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