Full iTunes Playlist for Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism

Here’s the full iTunes playlist for Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism (Routledge 2022): click the image.

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.

Check out the iTunes playlist for David Bowie and Romanticism.

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.

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.

Check out the iTunes playlist for David Bowie and Romanticism.

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.

Writing about Rock / Writing about Romanticism

The release of David Bowie and Romanticism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), an exciting new examination of David Bowie’s life, music, and film using the historical and theoretical insights provided by the study of Romantic art and literature, is now my third book examining the intersections of rock and roll and Romanticism, followed by a fourth one that just came out in October — Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism (Routledge, 2022). I’ll start discussing Women in Rock here in late November. All of these studies provide unique insights, in my opinion, both into Romanticism of centuries past and into rock music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and so, by extension, into our own lives in the present.

But why? Why specifically rock and Romanticism? Why Romanticism at all?

Check out the iTunes playlist for David Bowie and Romanticism.

That’s a strange question for me to consider four books into my project. While I think the books themselves are their own justification, I’d like to try to answer that question in shorter form here. And that begins with the question, what is Romanticism?

If you read long enough and far back enough, you not only get a sense of how past ages have contributed to the development of our own, but a sense of ongoing similarity as well. This impression differs by field and period of study, and it’s different for the study of art and literature and even more so for the study of politics and philosophy. No past times or ages are irrelevant to our own.

I would say our most immediate predecessor, the period during which the modern world began to take its current form, was the nineteenth century. It most resembles us without completely being us. The Romantic era, traditionally defined, ends during the first half of the nineteenth century according to most scholars of the period and begins sometime in the latter half of the eighteenth century, with the publication of Goethe’s Werther, or some of the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau, or the fall of the Bastille. However the start of Romanticism is defined, though, it was first theorized as Romanticism by the Schegels in their late eighteenth-century journal Athenaeum. They associated it at the time with the novels of their contemporary Ludwig Tieck, and in a number of fragments, aphorisms, and short essays considering the works of Greek and Roman authors and other writers such as Shakespeare.

Romanticism in their writing came to be associated with nostalgia, irony, and synthetic rather than analytic thinking and writing, which combines disparate parts into a new whole rather than dissecting things up into parts to better understand them. What’s interesting is that they didn’t initially periodize Romanticism, but rather associated it with a number of themes and aesthetic commitments, so that the late eighteenth century is perhaps best understood as the period during which Romanticism was first theorized rather than the first period during which Romantic literature first appeared.

But what is Romanticism? That question came to be asked more frequently and with greater intensity throughout the nineteenth century and into the present. Early on, it was opposed to Classic and Enlightenment thought and then extended to different fields, nations, and kinds of art, so that by the early twentieth century A.O. Lovejoy could say that the word “Romanticism” has ceased to serve the function of a verbal sign. As the debate continued, Romanticism came to be associated with an emphasis on imagination and feeling rather than reason; with radical political commitments (the British Romantics were supporters of the early days of the French Revolution, at least); less importantly, though very early, with drug use; and with the figure of the Romantic poet as an inspired individual who creates art out of genius.

A number of authors contributed to the discussion throughout the twentieth century with conflicting answers to that question in what seemingly became an unresolvable question. For my purposes, though, I’ve found the definition of Romanticism suggested by Sayre and Lowy’s Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity (2001) to be the most useful for the study of rock music. They define Romanticism as an emotional reaction to modernity, which for them is the combination of Enlightenment thought and capitalist economies which manifests itself in a number of forms. They create a taxonomy of forms of Romanticism to account for the wide variety of Romanticisms identified across different times, cultures, and different fields of study, allowing for a single, coherent definition of Romanticism that expresses itself a number of different ways.

Modernity provokes the response of Romanticism because it isolates individuals from each other and from nature, leading people to long for a past time when people were more of a community and closer to nature. Since Romanticism is a reaction to modernity, it can exist whenever, wherever, and however modernity exists, and as modernity transforms, Romantic reactions transform with it. Romantics at any given time may or may not buy into the project of modernity, and may or may not be consciously critiquing modernity, but either way, they react to the sting of modernity and its sense of isolation.

Since Romanticism is an ongoing response to modernity, the forms it takes continually evolve as modernity continually evolves so that Romanticism itself becomes modernity’s ongoing self-criticism. The first two Rock and Romanticism books, David Bowie and Romanticism, and then Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism assert that one transformation of Romanticism following World War II was into rock music. David Bowie himself, born in 1947, is the product of a post-war environment, the offspring of a PTSD generation burdened with the knowledge of the Holocaust and our possession of nuclear weapons. Rock music is therefore a Romantic response to post World War II modernity, one that subverts received categories of thought about art, music, gender, film, technology, politics and — in all of these writ large — human identity.

David Bowie himself is a fertile site for the exploration of Romanticism expressed through rock music from the 1960s onward. David Bowie and Romanticism advances our knowledge of Romanticism, modern culture, and David Bowie in chapters dedicated to David Bowie and Romantic androgyny; Bowie’s space imagery; Bowie and drug use; The Man Who Fell to Earth; two chapters on the so-called Berlin trilogy (an entire book could be devoted to this topic alone); Bowie as an ever-changing embodiment of Romantic types; Labyrinth; Bowie, fascism, and the album 1. Outside; and Bowie, death, and the album Blackstar.

Check out these books, which you can order from the Bookstore, and learn more about life and culture since World War II and about one of its most productive geniuses, David Bowie. I’ll be blogging about individual chapters soon.

See the Virtual Book Launch for David Bowie and Romanticism

If you weren’t able to join us for the virtual book launch for David Bowie and Romanticism (Palgrave Macmillan 2022), you can watch the recording below. Held live on location at Savvy Vinyl Records on 28 Laurie St. in Melbourne, FL. Many thanks to Michelle and Martha for their generosity hosting the book launch.

Many thanks to contributors Eric Pellerin, William Levine, Samuel Gladden, Aglaia Venters, Paul Rowe, Jennifer Lodine-Chaffey, and Julian Knox for their time and contributions, and to guests Sherry Truffin and Alicia Daily for their contributions and insights.

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