Tranquility can become disaster
William Hynes argues, “the sheer richness of trickster phenomena can easily lead to conclude that the trickster is indefinable. In fact, to define is to draw borders around phenomena, and tricksters seem amazingly resistant to such capture; they are notorious border breakers” (Hynes 33). This description perfectly matches the gender-bender David Bowie who reinvented himself over and over, and who constantly changed his personas as soon as the critics thought they had gotten a hold of him.
First of all, David Bowie’s ambivalence is indisputable. He is an actor of life who played numerous roles, a virtuoso of transformation and pure artistic performance. He always dared to be consciously different, which “he discovered, was a form of stardom [and] his final school report, which described him as a “complete exhibitionist”, indicated that he was successful in his endeavors” (Paytress 5). In his more than 40-year career, he has constantly reinvented himself and has come up with stage personas such as Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke and Aladdin Sane. All these personas had first and foremost the purpose to create a second personality, which was supposed to help the artist overcome his stage fright. It is quite remarkable that an artist as eager to be on stage as David Bowie suffered from serious anxiety about his live performances. However, all the personas he has created have been mutually contradictory, scandalous and “out personas” as Hynes describes a trickster as “outrageous, out-of-bounds and out-of-order” (Hynes 34).
If we take a closer look at his most famous persona Ziggy Stardust, we will see that Bowie’s alter ego transgression provoked the audience by clearly announcing the end of fixed gender roles. Wearing plenty of make-up, platform shoes and earrings as well as his androgynous figure and the long red hair made it easy to confuse him with a female. Anne Rice says that in “a technical society obsessed with the redefinition of masculine/feminine, [rock stars like David Bowie] shatter conventional notions of sexual charisma- male singers plastered with lipstick and rouge as they gyrate like belly-dancers” (Thomson, Gutman 183). By the time Bowie sent his Ziggy Stardust on stage he tried to provoke a reaction from the audience, bringing a so clearly homosexual persona, the great taboo of the seventies, into mainstream. However, he was already married and has had his son Zowie at the same time, which shows that he first and foremost played with different sexual identities. He could therefore be described as a modern type of shape-shifter who “can alter his shape or bodily appearance” and in whose realm “not even the boundaries of species or sexuality are safe, for they can be readily dissolved by (his) disguises and transmorphisms” (Hynes 36).
As Hynes goes on to describe the trickster as a situation-invertor, he claims that for him “no order is too rooted, no taboo too sacred, no god too high, no profanity too scatological that cannot be broached or inverted” (Hynes 37). As can be seen in David Bowie’s career, which hardly follows any conservative patterns, “the divisions between gay and straight, innovator and thief, bright’n’bouncy pop star and experimental outsider artist are often blurred” (Thomson 45). The innovator and the thief-motif as Thomson calls it, is often brought up when determining Bowie’s musical qualities. As often as he is, for instance, claimed to the inventor of Glam Rock and everything that accompanies it, from the glitter to the platform shoes, he is accused equally as often for having stolen it from T-Rex in the early seventies. “However, as often as Bowie acts like a chameleon, taking on the characteristics of his surroundings, he also sometimes finds himself wildly at odds with current trends in pop music” (Perone Xi). On the one hand he is “an important indicator of trends and thought of musical genre in popular culture” (Thomson, Gutman 188), and being able to reinvent himself every few years has always been positively connected with the name David Bowie. On the other hand critics have always accused him for following musical trends to easy and not being true to himself . Bowie likes to show off all these ambivalent characteristics on stage as well as in interviews and has therefore gained the reputation of being exceedingly witty and cunning.
When it comes to the performance of his music as its very own art form, one must argue that the very playful ambivalence and scandalous behavior are the biggest part of his art. So at a time when Rock and Roll music was represented by artists like Lou Reed, Bob Dylan or Iggy Pop who “offered little threat to the parent culture, Bowie’s Ziggy escapade moved in the opposite direction, (…) sex laced with a frisson of deviance, strangeness, and, lest we forget, fun.” (Paytress XI) Bowie created his own personal carnival very early on, and later, of course, also the carnival on stage, where he presented his self-created one-man show to the audience. He always saw and still sees himself as an entertainer. His music very much follows the same rules that he does; it constantly shifts, sometimes adapting to and sometimes strongly contradicting the current trends.