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.