Was Ziggy Stardust an Ayn Rand Hero?
In The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand describes the heroic architect Howard Roark as possessing a “body of long straight lines and angles, each curve broken into planes.” Unlike the athlete’s graceful physique, his body is taut, standing rigid like the monumental buildings he designs. No matinee idol, Roark’s “hard, forbidding” face is striking but not exactly handsome. His narrow mouth inclines toward a contemptuous smirk; his hair is “neither blond nor red, but the exact color of a ripe orange rind.”
That doesn’t sound much like Gary Cooper, who played Roark in the 1949 film version of Rand’s novel. But it bears a striking resemblance to Ziggy Stardust, the most iconic of the characters whom the late David Bowie portrayed in the idiosyncratic combination of sound and vision that defined his career. According to Robert Dean Lurie, this similarity not coincidental. In his e-book We Can Be Heroes, Lurie argues that Bowie was a champion of “radical individualism” inspired not just by Rand but also by Nietzsche, Kerouac, and perhaps even Edmund Burke.
Lurie is not the first writer to find a deeper significance in Bowie’s penchant for unorthodox chord structures and weird looks. Like Bob Dylan, Bowie is a perennial subject of critical interpretation because he was so much smarter and more deliberate in his artistic choices than other rock stars. Lurie acknowledges that it is unclear what Bowie really knew about the sources to which he alluded in songs and interviews. Nevertheless he was a serious reader who treated his music and performances as experiments with ideas rather than expressions of his ostensibly true self.
Bowie has also attracted interest as one of relatively few pop culture figures to express sympathy for the authoritarian right. Diamond Dogs, an album inspired by Orwell’s 1984, begins with an announcement to a cheering crowd that “This ain’t rock ‘n’ roll, it’s genocide.” Bowie’s flirtation with dark politics received its peak in the mid-1970s, when he assumed the persona of the “Thin White Duke”. This dissolute aristocrat combined a look evocative of the Weimar Republic with occasional gestures of outright fascism.
Bowie eventually renounced these gestures, which he blamed on a bout of truly prodigious drug consumption. But he never lived down his reputation as an avatar of reactionary modernism. According to Lurie, Station to Station—the classic record Bowie released around this time—reflects the existence of “a number of ‘stations’ across the continuum of the philosophical right: radical liberty, or freedom, positioned at one end; Burke’s careful balancing of forward movement against the lessons of history and tradition inhabiting the middle; and at the other extreme an impulse toward authoritarianism that can devolve into fascism.” As the Thin White Duke, Bowie suggested that the unbound individual stands and unlimited state are closely related: both reject the networks of custom and tradition that distinguish moral and political responsibility from the mere absence of restraint.
Bowie seems to have recovered a more salutary balance in his later years. He stopped using drugs, established a stable domestic life, and even became something of a small-c conservative. The biographer Christopher Sandford recently wrote in TAC that the mature Bowie cultivated the image of a benevolent country gentleman. Contrary to all expectations, Thin White Duke turned into Lord Grantham.
Although its basic outlines are familiar, Lurie tells the story of Bowie’s transformation clearly and engagingly. The question is whether Bowie’s performance art should really be characterized as a kind of philosophical argument.
I am skeptical that this is a useful way of understanding Bowie’s significance. His “changes”, as he called them, have received lavish attention from critics and obituarists. As Rod Liddle has pointed out in The Spectator, however, these tributes ignore the fact that Bowie was far from the only rock star to play around with costume, aesthetics, and musical styles. Outside of the most grimly sincere subgenres, musicians change their images about as often as ordinary people change their shirts. The reason isn’t radical individualism so much as Rand’s other great obsession: the pursuit of wealth.
It’s true that Bowie portrayed his characters with a sort of crazed seriousness. But that isn’t really what made them memorable. Taken on their own terms, Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke are laughable. They lived—and continue to live—because they were the vehicles for some of the most memorable pop music of the last 50 years. What distinguished Bowie from imitators like Slade, in other words, is that he was a brilliant songwriter and arranger who had the good sense to employ some of the best players and producers in the business.
Take one of Bowie’s most famous songs, “Life on Mars” from 1971’s Hunky Dory. Although they express a quasi-aristocratic contempt for “the mice in their million hordes”, the lyrics are essentially doggerel. What makes the song work is the chorus, in which Bowie’s vocal goes up nearly an octave, creating an unexpected and nearly intolerable tension. That kind of technique is what made Bowie a genius—not half-digested references to Nietzsche.
In fact, Bowie was at his most eloquent when he was saying virtually nothing. Two of his strongest records, Low and Heroes, are heavily influenced by ambient music and contains long stretches of electronic drones or Bowie chanting in a nameless gibberish. It sounds better than it reads. On Hunky Dory, Bowie asked his audience to consider whether there might be life on Mars. Low and Heroes actually took them there.
Bowie’s later work includes some interesting material. Even so, his reputation rests almost entirely on music made between 1971 and 1977. Ziggy Stardust warned, “Five years, that’s all we’ve got.” Although he continued to record until soon before his death in January of this year, this prophecy nearly describes to his own career.
It doesn’t diminish Bowie’s achievement to doubt that he was a prophet of radical individualism. Rather, it is to place that achievement in its appropriate field—music—while leaving philosophy and literature to the philosophers and writers. The real question, it seems to me, is how Bowie was to transcend the inevitable banality of pop lyricism, making his listeners feel that they too can be heroes in a way that words alone would be unable to do. Answering it would honor not only Bowie, but also Nietzsche, who wrote that “life without music is simply an error, exhausting, an exile.” Rather than driving a wedge between individuals, Bowie brought us home to ourselves.
Samuel Goldman is assistant professor of political science at The George Washington University.