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Ziggy Stardust the Motion Picture 50th Anniversary

As I previously wrote, 2023 is a strange anniversary year for Bowie. It is the first year that ends in the number three that Bowie hasn’t released a new album since 1963, and therefore is the anniversary of several Bowie albums. It is also the 50th anniversary of the supposed (but not really) final Ziggy concert, documented in Ziggy Stardust the Motion Picture. Probably on the heels of the success of Moonage Daydream, the film reappeared in theaters this year and there’s a re-release of the soundtrack. (Put aside that the movie and soundtrack were released in 1984, so it isn’t actually the 50th anniversary of either, just the concert itself).

I think the movie is getting more play than, say, the 30th Anniversary of Black Tie White Noise for a few reasons not the least of which being that there’s really isn’t a whole lot of other generally available footage of Bowie as Ziggy. Sure, there are a lot of photographs and there’s a good chance that you’d think of Bowie as Ziggy if you think of Bowie at all. But aside from The 1980 Floor show, a handful of videos and, well, I can think of one other television appearance, most common footage of Bowie singing is from other periods. Especially considering that nobody who didn’t attend the concert saw this for more than a decade after it happened, its safe to say that the film’s iconography has taken on greater significance in the years since it happened.

Aside from what’s happened to Bowie, thinking about how this concert happened half-a-century ago makes me think about what else has happened to society. In terms of the music itself, as I’ve written before, it seems as fresh and rebellious as ever, and certainly in a way that music from 50 years before that almost certainly didn’t in 1973. I mean, “Anything Goes” (which would have been 39 years old) was about the shocking state of modern culture, but the song itself was not shocking. Not like Bowie giving a blow job to Mick Ronson’s guitar. Or just the lyrics of “Cracked Actor.” I’m sure that on the fringes of the avant-garde there’s some sort of harder driving or energetic form of rock music, but to the extent of my limited knowledge of music, rock and roll per se did not really evolve since about this point in time. Here, I’m making a distinction between some of rock’s spinoff forms, including those that Bowie himself pioneered, and the type of electric-guitar driven form that was really perfected in the early 1970s and is still played by contemporary bands today.

Culturally, Bowie’s gender ambiguity has taken on meaning in terms of politics and personal identity that I’m pretty sure Bowie himself did not intend at the time. I recently participated in annual sexual harassment training at work and in the process reviewed our employee handbook. New York State workers have the right to whatever pronouns they choose and supervisors cannot impose a gender-specific dress code. It goes without saying that harassment or discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation has long since been prohibited in the state service. Some of what I just wrote was probably inconceivable as Bowie was applying his lipstick before the show.

From what I’ve read, Bowie was not looking to make social change but was going for shock effect. His gender nonconformity was in the service of entertaining his audience and making him stand out. Take away the appearance and some of the lyrics (fewer of the lyrics than you might guess), and Bowie’s version of Glam rock is not all that different than what the Who or Led Zeppelin were doing around the same time. I think there’s a quote from Bowie somewhere saying something like, “Glam rock is just rock and roll tarted up” or something like that.

Well, it worked as intended, but Bowie’s iconography wove its way into the culture and helped many people who felt alone or different (and not just for reasons having to do with gender or sexual orientation) feel, as Bowie sang, that they were “not alone.” That, of course, is how the movie and concert end, with Bowie singing “Rock and Roll Suicide,” ending the show by repeating, “you’re not alone.” And after all that, I can kinda believe it, too.

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