There’s no doubt that David Bowie is one of rock’s most influential artists. Anybody who has taken odd detours, and even remotely strange owes a huge debt to Bowie. Glam rock would not exist without him. Bowie was also one of the first artists to bring sexual ambiguity to his performances. And while The Who may have invented the Rock Opera, Bowie took rock theatrics to a new height – something that Queen would try to emulate throughout their entire career.
But which of Bowie’s incarnations is more culturally significant? Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane?
The obvious choice would be Ziggy Stardust. It is constantly ranked as one of the greatest albums of all time and its influence is undeniable. Musically the album covers proto-punk, glam-rock, soul, and folk-rock sing-alongs. At least three of its songs are classic rock staples – “Starman”, “Ziggy Stardust” and “Suffragrette City.”
For lack of a better, term The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars is epic. It sweeps and moves you along. Yet for all its grandiose ambitions, it also retains its cool. “Moonage Daydream” opens with a fierce riff courtesy of Mick Ronson which Bowie showing his teeth declaring, “I’m an alligator/I’m a rock and roll mama coming for you.” As the song draws to its conclusion, Ronson takes the song to outer-space with one of the era’s best guitar solos. Elsewhere, Bowie offers up some of rock’s best descriptions of Ziggy with his “screwed-up eyes and screwed down hairdo, like some cat from Japan.”
Ziggy Stardust proved to be a huge record for Bowie – it sent him into superstardom. While promoting the album, Ziggy and Bowie were one and the same. It was hard to tell the two apart. Ziggy allowed Bowie to indulge in his deepest rock fantasies.
Its follow-up, Aladdin Sane (intended pun: a lad insane) while containing some stellar material, finds Bowie taking on yet another persona. Although the album differs from Ziggy Stardust – the science fiction elements are gone and replaced by New York cool – it still treads much of the same territory.
Yet, Aladdin Sane has penetrated pop culture in a way that Ziggy Stardust failed to do. While the character of Ziggy may have embodied Bowie for several years, for many casual fans (and even those unfamiliar with Bowie) the iconic cover of Aladdin Sane has become the image of Bowie. (Though it could be argued that for many people of my generation, he still remains the scary dude in Labyrinth. Ziggy Stardust, it seems for many only exists in song form. Bowie may stopped being the character, but the character has become him.
The image is striking. His eyes are closed. There’s the famous rainbow lightning bolt slashed across his face screaming to be heard and seen.
If there’s any doubt about the picture’s cultural affect, you only need to go to an MGMT show. Dozens of girls in the audience had make-up on their face complete with lightning bolts, no doubt mimicking MGMT themselves. But it was all Bowie, even if the girls didn’t know. On a recent episode of Glee, Sue Sylvester disguises herself as the character. A couple weeks ago, at Baltimore’s Artscape Festival, I saw a t-shirt combining Harry Potter’s face with the iconic Aladdin Sane make-up.
“Did you see the Harry Potter t-shirt?” A friend asked me later that day.
“Yeah, the Aladdin Sane one?”
“Yeah, the Bowie one.” She replied. I felt weird for knowing the image by its actual source. For her, it was Bowie. Not just a character.
As for Bowie himself, you really got a good thing going here.