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  Ziggy Stardust:
A Musical Analysis

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Side Two begins with "Lady Stardust", an original Bowie song, introduced by solo piano (Mick Ronson displaying an outstanding ability on this instrument - although he had been heard in this role on Side one). The song is told from the viewpoint of a boy who is in love with a rock and roll singer on stage. We hear of his fantasies, but there is no ambiguity here as there was in "Queen Bitch". The "Lady Stardust" in question is almost certainly Marc Bolan (indeed Bowie has indicated as much on several occasions), but that is ultimately irrelevant. The important point is that, for all the adoring description of the singer, this is not a sexual song - although doubtless the singer in this instance would not have minded the opportunity - and the love remains unrequited, distanced. We do not know if the object of the love either knew or cared about the existence of his admirer. The song can be seen to be concerned with all such yearnings, translated into a gay setting not for sensationalism but because a straight song on the subject would not have had the effect of other-worldliness, as of seeming to care for the minority, or of focusing our attention on the sadness of the situation, with all its implications, which the "five year" life of this particular sound world forces us to consider when time has a definite limit imposed upon it. The song is shot through with masterly touches: at the phrase "out of sight" Bowie's voice suddenly leaps skywards, but quietly, the musical equivalent of the words, and retained as part of the melodic line. When this phrase returns with the word "paradise" the ecstasy and heavenwards-thought also fit the rising rapture of his voice like a glove. One final small point; the piano introduction and coda quote (doubtless unconsciously) "Maria" from "West Side Story", for the second time in Bowie's writing career.

The second side is as complete a collection as the first, on which the parameters had been faintly drawn; now, they are to be explored, but within the context of music theatre. As we have heard, the first song, "Lady Stardust", is about performance, seen from the adoring fan's viewpoint. Now, a succession of songs, a mini-gig, almost as a multi-movement cantata within the album side, refracts the image. The next three songs, vastly different though they be, nevertheless make the collective viewpoint. "Star" takes the solo singer, whom we know is called Ziggy Stardust, and reveals his plans for personal world stardom. But we also know, as he does not, that in this context the Earth's life is a mere five years more. His, therefore, cannot be longer. Furthermore, the pansexuality which pervades these songs is nothing more than Ziggy's desire to appeal at every level to the widest possible audience. "Star" is a remarkable song. It is based on old rock formulae, confirming the dramatic background, but handled with considerable ingenuity, not least with regard to its rhythmic construction and the malleability with which Bowie uses backing voices. The song's seriousness is reinforced by the sudden unexpected change to a slow tempo towards the end, as though a frown has passed across the mind, unbidden, revealing an aspect of stardom which it is probably better not to contemplate.

This new aspect might just possibly be referred to in the next song "Hang On To Yourself" a piece of surprising originality. This is sung to a fast-medium soft-rock tempo and is an overt invitation, if not more than that, to sex, but sung in an insidious half-whipped voice that seems all the more dangerous because it appears plainly determined to get what it wants. "Ziggy Stardust" is a portrait of the star, not of Bowie himself. It is essentially descriptive of the performer at work, seen this time from on stage.

So we have three interlinked songs, related by their harmonies, and rhythmic subtleties, concerned variously with the star's ambition, his influence and his appearance. Now Ziggy himself, fully revealed by this process, sings "Suffragette City", full of those sexual ambiguities noted earlier. In one sense the star realizes the helplessness of the situation he has created; as a leader he has his followers, but they are suffocating him and he cannot control them. They, lacking his original certainty of purpose, threaten to overwhelm him and very nearly do; the suffragette, the willingly-led seeker after personal freedom, is both man and woman. It is likely that the seeker is the original innocent distant lover of the first song on this side; Ziggy's increasing exasperation finds its outlet initially in the frantic tempo that towards the end freezes into repeated notes with an obsessive disregard for everything. The words tumble beneath a seemingly chaotic spray, as the speeding mind races through a whole kaleidoscope of imagery. The result is a colossal shock, both for the listener and for Ziggy himself, for we never thought it would come to this. And this, the self-created, self-destructive situation can only go in one direction, at least in this frame of mind.

"Rock 'n' Roll Suicide" concludes this amazing piece of work, a slow, beaten, broken song beginning in the depths of despair. The image of a worn-out youth at the end of his imagination is brilliantly drawn; but he is both Ziggy and Ziggy's follower. As Ziggy he cannot escape, as the previous song clearly indicated, and as his followers have no-one to lead them, they drift aimlessly, within a world of finite temporality. But this is reduced to the personal, to the singular; here the suicide - both the person and the act - is that of one individual who is led towards his inevitable suicide. Together, however, Ziggy and his followers might just achieve something "You're not alone," sings Bowie to himself and to his followers, calling "love" to anyone who wants to hear. It is both a plea for his fans to follow him and to himself to go on to new things, and although this arises from the depths of despair, the music manages, in spite of the slow and doom-laden tread, to heave itself upwards, groaning and protesting the while, from the simplistic C major, the chord reinforced right at the very end of the record The opening song of the album was in G major; now, at the end, we have harmonically speaking traversed the universe to end on the farthest possible key away - the tritone D flat. Clearly Bowie has a great deal more left in him to say, although whether it will be Ziggy who says it is another matter.

---This page last modified: 30 Jun 2002---

Ziggy Stardust Scarf (1973)