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Ziggy Stardust: Fashioning the Future Legend

by Hannah Aki Hawkins (29 June 1998)

"All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players." A good reason for the lasting fascination with this Shakespearean quote is that it evokes conflicting emotions. A deeply cynical comment on the real meaningfulness of our actions expresses itself in the joyful acceptance of the magic of the stage. I recently read a brilliant book by Stephen Greenblatt called Renaissance Self-Fashioning, which argues for the deadly seriousness of this quote as a metaphor for life. In the turbulent English Renaissance, both courtiers and commoners developed complicated strategies drawn from religion, literature and the theater in order to fashion themselves as individuals and members of a rapidly changing society.

"Until there was rock you only had god." Things are different now, of course. But it´s still true that identity is never eternally given, and at certain times and places its fragile nature is painfully apparent. I remember being a typical confused adolescent, desperately wanting to be everything that I wasn´t. My sexuality, my cultural heritage, my hairstyle... there were rules that covered all of these, but they weren´t good rules and I wasn´t happy with them. Enter "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars." I now had the example of a doomed eyebrowless bisexual alien messiah to look up to. Ziggy Stardust didn´t give me new rules to tell me who I was and how I should live my life, but I wasn´t looking for a religion anyway. Instead, I had a story of 20th century self-fashioning -- perhaps the story of 20th century self-fashioning -- that took my painful confusion and gave it a role of mysterious significance in terms of loss and redemption, death and rebirth.

The story of Ziggy Stardust reverses the Bible, because the fall is at the end and not the beginning. But this lack of a comfortable ending doesn´t make it a high tragedy, either. In an interview with William Burroughs, David Bowie said that the song "Rock´N´Roll Suicide" was cynical and ironic, mocking the idea of salvation through stardom/fandom. Interestingly, this ironic level doesn´t undermine the awesome emotional sincerity of the song, but works alongside it and must reinforce it somehow. The song is a lie and I am alone. But I'm not... someone is reaching his hand to me. I don´t understand it and maybe I never will.

The cycle turns in on itself and grows multiple layers of meaning. Towards the end Bowie began to believe he was really the messiah. And that was the time to end it all and kill Ziggy. When I read about this, I understood that self-fashioning was not an end in itself. It was something that always went on, and you need a level of distance (not necessarily cynical) to control its progress. At some point you have to know that it´s time to walk away. What you lost is not lost forever but serves as a foundation for the new and the strange.

Another paradox: our fascination with the death of Ziggy ensures his rebirth. We can emotionally re-stage his death over and over again. Ziggy Stardust is not like the other dead saints of rock´n´roll sanctified as culture heroes... his death derives its significance as a work of art and not as a work of fate.

"In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes." This cynical cliché -- from another master of 20th century self-fashioning -- is essentially an update of Shakespeare´s line. Ziggy was born by those words, died by them, and ultimately denied them, like a sly Judas. A paradox to live by, perhaps.

© Hannah Aki Hawkins  - queenvolcano@hotmail.com

---This page last modified: 29 Jun 2002---

Ziggy Stardust Scarf (1973)