When David Bowie Was a Muppet

In many ways, Bowie defied categorization by transcending binary identities like male and female or heterosexual and homosexual. Bowie even escaped fixed labeling as a musician, artist, actor, or performer, thereby asserting that rational order’s authority over individuals is illusory. His embrace of opposing images (male vs. female, public vs. private) was the linchpin of his commitment to his own genuine selfhood.

Aglaia Maretta Venters, David Bowie and Romanticism, pp. 185-6.

I’d never thought of Bowie’s performance in the 1986 film Labyrinth as reducing him to one of Jim Henson’s muppets until now. Perhaps I still don’t. I think that performance elevated him to the status of one of Jim Henson’s muppets, perhaps the best muppet of them all. Bowie certainly had fun with the role; while the film performed poorly at the box office, grossing only about half of its production costs in the US, it’s never been seen as one of Bowie’s embarrassments, and it’s developed a cult following since then. An entire generation became Bowie fans because of this film, and Toija Cinque and Sean Redmond in The Fandom of David Bowie (2019) reports that a number of young female fans experienced a kind of sexual awakening after watching this film — the codpiece! (pp. 32, 45).

Aglaia Venters provocatively argues in “The Goblin King, Absurdity, and Nonbinary Thinking,” chapter 9 of David Bowie and Romanticism, that Bowie’s character Jareth was not a villain at all, but seemed to act more consistently in the interests of the young heroine’s (perf. Jennifer Connelly) growth and development. Through an extended close reading of the film, she characterizes Bowie’s Romanticism through its destabilization of normally stable binary opposites: hero/villain, actor/character, masculine/feminine, etc.

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You can read more in David Bowie and Romanticism. Order it from the Bookstore or have your local, college, or university library order it.

Aglaia Maretta Venters teaches in the History Department at South Louisiana Community College. She has recently published a chapter on Hegel in Reading as Democracy in Crisis: Interpretation, Theory, History (Lexington, 2019) and has forthcoming publications on French Renaissance political theory and Jesuit paradigms for understanding the tensions between reason and faith.

Bowie the Rebel and Romantic Typology

In a culture generally unaccustomed to theatrical displays of male plumage, the glittered, feathered, frequently half-naked David Bowie of the glam rock 1970s presented an affront to traditional notions of gendered norms, introducing instances of “gender expression” some forty years avant la lettre. Fast-forward to the relatively conventional final decades of Bowie’s private life, and his legacy takes on a sort of prismatic function, separating into strategic deployments of gender, sexuality, and desire that both piqued and provoked the public, disrupting notions about masculinity, desirability, the function of the artist, and the future of mankind.

Samuel Lyndon Gladden, David Bowie and Romanticism, p. 163

One perhaps lesser-known synchrony between the Romantic era, especially British Romanticism, and the rock and roll era is celebrity culture. Celebrity culture magnifies the personal lives of famous individuals to international importance. Often tied to scandalous behavior, figures who become famous for writing poetry or recording rock songs soon become famous for being an object of gossip and then, eventually, famous for being famous.

Figures in this position soon learn how to leverage it further through affairs, gossip, and outrageous behavior. Celebrity culture as we understand it today originates in the Romantic era, most notably (but not solely) with George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824). During his own time, Byron was infamous for being “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”: he had a number of famous affairs that eventually drove him from mainland England to the European continent for the remainder of his life. The most famous (but least likely) of these affairs was with his half sister Augusta Leigh; his ex-wife Anne Isabella Milbanke (Annabella) spread the rumor aggressively, finding it very easy to think the worst about him.

Byron, for his part, did little to suppress these rumors and in fact seemed to play them up, indulging in teasing references to incest in his play Cain. Byron’s dialog imagines a twin sister Adah born alongside Adam and Eve’s first son, Cain. Byron here spells out the implications of a Genesis narrative in which all human beings were sons and daughters of Adam and Eve: by necessity, brothers married sisters. Adah, hearing from Lucifer that these marriages would be condemned in the future, is shocked:

Adah.‍ But all we know of it has gathered / Evil on ill; expulsion from our home, / And dread, and toil, and sweat, and heaviness; / Remorse of that which was—and hope of that / Which cometh not. Cain! walk not with this Spirit. / Bear with what we have borne, and love me—I Love thee.

Lucifer.‍ More than thy mother, and thy sire?

Adah. I do. Is that a sin, too?

Lucifer.‍ No, not yet; It one day will be in your children.

Adah.‍ What! Must not my daughter love her brother Enoch?

Lucifer. Not as thou lovest Cain.

Byron is, to say the least, being unhelpful if he wants to defuse scandal and rumors. But he does not. Confronted with a dumpster fire, Byron brings the gas can.

Other aspects of celebrity culture involve the visual representation of the celebrity in culture. Both Byron and Bowie were famous for publicly disseminated images; we could even say the variety of paintings of Byron could represent personas in a way parallel to Bowie’s numerous personas adopted through the 1970s.

Rock music transformed the male gaze of traditional western culture from a gaze upon women’s bodies to a gaze upon men: men became dandies, wore makeup, suddenly cared about clothing beyond generic expressions of masculinity which, in turn, upset gender norms. The scandalous celebrity benefiting and suffering from celebrity culture invariably became a rebel.

Samuel Lyndon Gladden in “‘Rebel Rebel’: Bowie as Romantic ‘Type,'” chapter 8 of David Bowie and Romanticism, argues that during the era of Bowie’s superstardom (which, for Gladden, begins in the 1980s with Bowie’s best-selling album, Let’s Dance), “Bowie remains constantly visible and cycles through artistic phases in rapid succession” (p. 167).

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Bowie’s superstardom moves through three distinct phases in Gladden’s chapter: a heteronormative era during which he is accused of selling out (1980s); an era of experimental work and early adoption of new musical styles (1990s); and a third era of discovery (2000s). Each of these have their parallels in Romantic era literature.

You can read more in David Bowie and Romanticism. Order it from the Bookstore or have your local, college, or university library order it.

Samuel Lyndon Gladden serves as Professor of English and Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Education, and Human Development at the University of New Orleans. He has published widely on key figures in nineteenth-century British literature with books on Percy Shelley and Oscar Wilde and articles on Mary Shelley, Wilkie Collins, Bram Stoker, and others.

Bowie in Berlin, Part 2

The new persona that we might call “David Bowie in Berlin” was created through a turn to the art of a past era that also grappled with capitalist realism: Expressionism, an artistic movement that deepens the Romantic vein of expressing emotional experience. . . A future is mourned in the spectral fade-out that closes “Speed of Life.” Through vanishing clouds of futurity, Bowie’s unprecedented musical landscape emerges.

Paul Rowe, David Bowie and Romanticism, pp. 147, 149

Paul Rowe’s “Relics of The Future: The Melancholic Romanticism of Bowie’s Berlin Triptych,” chapter 7 of David Bowie and Romanticism, negotiates the tensions between modernism and Romanticism in Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy.” Drawing from Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre’s Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity (2001), Rowe emphasizes that Romanticism remains embedded in modernity; that it is, in fact, a modern critique of modernity, modernity’s self criticism.

Check out the iTunes playlist for David Bowie and Romanticism.

This conceptual move allows him to bring together Bowie’s modernist electronica of the Berlin albums with Romantic nostalgia, melancholy, and, in Schlegel’s words, “the willows of exile.” Rowe sees Bowie in Berlin as an exile, “an outcast in his own time who mourns the future without knowing what he has lost or will lose, a dreamer who yearns for relics of the future, powerfully prophesizing the end of history associated with the fall of the Berlin Wall” (p. 143). What’s stunning to me about Rowe’s work is not just his identification of Romantic nostalgia in Bowie’s work, but in defining that Romantic nostalgia as nostalgia for the future. What could nostalgia for the future be but a longing for lost hopes, a lost trajectory, a lost vision for the future?

You can read more in David Bowie and Romanticism. Order it from The Bookstore or have your local, college, or university library order it.

Paul Rowe teaches at Endicott College and works as a music writer for PopMatters. His work also appears in Literary Imagination and Literary Matters.

When David Bowie Fell to Earth

Newton’s mission clearly suggests a Romantic “return to origins,” specifically the pastoral origins of a lost homeland, so as to redirect his profits toward reviving a dying community that will presumably be founded on use rather than exchange values for his alien race and earthly allies. This restorative vision also would allow the fulfillment of a Romantic selfhood, a full realization of an inner life and agency that would no longer be divided by economic subjectivization.

William Levine, David Bowie and Romanticism, p. 88

David Bowie’s acting career extends to 37 appearances in film and television alone, not counting theater roles. That number covers numerous supporting parts, of course, but a number of leading ones as well. His two most important leading film roles were in Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth as Thomas Jerome Newton and Jim Henson’s 1986 Labyrinth as Jareth, the Goblin King. I’m happy to say that David Bowie and Romanticism has chapters dedicated to both films; I would have felt that the book was incomplete without covering at least both of them.

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One idea that surfaced in both chapters is how strongly Bowie’s public persona intruded on the films through these roles. There’s something a bit obvious about casting Bowie as an alien because his first musical persona was Ziggy Stardust. It complicates our reading of the film, inviting us to read the film as commentary on Bowie’s career as much as an artistic statement in its own right. The film’s title also invites a comparison with Bowie’s 1970 song, “The Man Who Sold the World.” The man who sold the world is a reference to Lucifer’s third temptation of Christ, who offered Christ all the kingdoms of the world if he would bow down and worship him. Similarly, the man who fell to Earth, representing a fall from the sky, invokes Lucifer as well as an alien, both fallen beings in both a material and a moral sense. Lucifer was cast out of heaven; Thomas Jerome Newton came to Earth to rescue his arid homeworld from drought but then never left; and then David Bowie, during the making of this film, was nearing the end of his first stay in America. Verging on cocaine psychosis, if not falling in and out of it, at one point his weight dropped to only 90 lbs. because he was living on a diet of milk and peppers and hardly sleeping. Bowie fell to America the way Lucifer and Newton fell to Earth. Before the end of 1976 he left America for Europe to escape the ready availability of drugs and to save his own life.

William Levine’s “Capitalist Co-optation, Romantic Resistance, and Bowie’s Allegorical Performance in Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth,” chapter 5 of David Bowie and Romanticism, is a sophisticated close reading of the film and its intersections with Bowie’s public persona and Romantic themes and images. Levine writes about “capitalist co-optation” in the film because Thomas Jerome Newton’s goal to save his homeworld requires him to secure a number of patents that make him a very wealthy man, give him access to Earth’s industrial capabilities, and make him a threat to established corporations that ultimately cause his downfall.

In Levine’s words, “Newton commands the regime of modernity even more decisively than its major corporations.” But by the end of the film, in Bowie’s words, “Newton has ‘actually found some sort of real emotional drive; he knows what it is to relate to people.'” He has transcended his capitalist, opportunistic, and exploitative goals to form relationships with people on Earth, however doomed they were to fail.

You can read all of Levine’s chapter in the book, of course, which you can purchase through the Bookstore or request for your local, college, or university library.

William Levine regularly teaches courses in the literature of jazz and the blues, philosophy and literature, and the history of literary criticism at Middle Tennessee State University. He has published articles on almost every major English poet and literary critic from Pope to Anna Barbauld and Coleridge, and his current work on the literature of jazz and the blues is informed by many years spent as a jazz journalist producing radio interviews and writing for urban arts weeklies.

Bowie in Berlin, Part 1

It is the spring of 2003, midway through my first year in graduate school, and my friend Nathan has earlier that day acquired a used vinyl copy of David Bowie’s Station to Station from Amoeba Music. Some months later, we are driving down Sunset Boulevard listening to the song “Negativland” from New!’s 1972 debut album. Again, an ominous quasi-industrial noise, something like a jackhammer, leads off the track. Again, a muffled guitar squeals in the background, defiantly on its own trip as Michael Rother’s plodding baseline and Klaus Dinger’s motorik-beat propel the song forward. Again I explain, “This is the sound of postmodernism. . .”

Julian Knox, David Bowie and Romanticism, pp. 117-118

Bowie’s Berlin period is both famous and misunderstood. Well before the end of 1976 Bowie’s cocaine addiction had led him in and out of psychosis, dropped him to 90 lbs. on a diet of peppers and milk, and pushed him to the point of death. He knew he had to leave the United States and its easy availability of drugs just to save his life. In late 1976, he and his wife Angie moved to Switzerland, where they purchased a house. The couple was largely estranged by this point, alternating their time spent in the house rather than living together, and Bowie eventually moved to Berlin to share an apartment with Iggy Pop, whose career was floundering after the breakup of the Stooges.

Check out the iTunes playlist for David Bowie and Romanticism.

Bowie’s work after moving to Europe included co-writing and producing two albums for Iggy, both in 1977: The Idiot (recorded in Switzerland, final mixing in Berlin) and Lust for Life (Berlin). These albums most famously produced the songs “China Girl,” a later hit for David Bowie rerecorded for the album Let’s Dance (1983), and “Lust for Life,” Pop’s signature song. Bowie wrote music and Pop lyrics on both songs. Bowie then teamed up with Tony Visconti as producer and Brian Eno as collaborator on the albums Low (1977) and “Heroes” (1977).

Bowie wrapped up his work at the Hansa studio in Berlin with the soundtrack for his performance of Brecht’s Baal (1981). Lodger (1979), typically mentioned as the last of Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, and the last album on which he collaborated with Brian Eno until 1995’s 1. Outside, was recorded in Switzerland and New York, not Berlin.

Watch “Station to Station” live on YouTube.

Julian Knox’s “Too Late to be Late Again: David Bowie, the Late 1970s, and Romanticism,” chapter 6 of David Bowie and Romanticism, explores the arrival of the “European canon” in Bowie’s music from Station to Station through the Berlin Trilogy to Scary Monsters against the background of German electronica, German Romanticism, Byron, and Coleridge — and his own personal life and growth.

Bowie’s Romanticism in this chapter is described as “a philosophy of artistic creation as self-disclosure, not through purportedly unfiltered, unmediated ‘sincerity,’ but rather through permutation and flux. . . [which] lies at the heart of a major strand of Romantic aesthetics, articulated by Coleridge in his appraisal of Shakespeare-as-Proteus: ‘to become by the power of Imagination another thing–Proteus, a river, a lion, yet still the God felt to be there'” (p. 122). Read more in David Bowie and Romanticism. Pick up a copy in The Bookstore or ask your local, college, or university library to order it.

Julian Knox is Assistant Professor of English at Georgia College & State University, where he teaches Romanticism, the eighteenth century, and Victorian literature, and where he coordinates the M.A. Program in Literature.

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