Glam rock was about much more than glitz and hits

How the sexually ambivalent David Bowie and Marc Bolan subverted rock’s patriarchy

 

Glam is perhaps the most derided and disparaged form of rock music. Even calling it rock feels strange; it’s pure pop – sexy, sugar-coated and aimed at a mass-market. Most pop of all is glam’s complete disregard for the kind of authenticity that defines so much of rock’s history, from Elvis, rock’s first true star, to Kurt Cobain, its last. It’s this perceived lack of honesty, a certain awareness and embrace of its own ridiculousness, which has most often alienated rock fans and rock critics.

Shock & Awe, the comprehensive new book on glam by British critic Simon Reynolds, is an effective counterweight to these kinds of arguments, and not just because it’s 700 pages long. Reynolds has written extensively on music since the late 1980s, first for Melody Maker and more recently in books such as Rip It Up & Start Again, about the post-punk era, and Energy Flash, about rave music and dance culture in Britain in the early 90s. His last book, Retromania, looked persuasively at the increasing influence of the past on music and pop culture more generally. Glam was just a footnote in that book, a few pages covering the early 1970s, but it was enough to plant the seed – glam was something worth thinking about, something that combined the future with the past in a way that could not easily be resolved.

“The fundamentals of the music go backward to less complicated, less hippy, progressive forms but then the production is this overblown, histrionic and very ‘produced’ sound in a lot of cases,” says Reynolds over an early-morning Skype chat from his home in Los Angeles. “Sort of regressing and progressing at the same time. That double-move – go back, go forward – I found that really compelling about glam. There’s a whole jumble of very advanced things going on with glam as music, but then very much cutting it back to basics, almost in a way that anticipates what punk did.”

This paradox is what makes Shock & Awe such an interesting read. Rather than seeing glam as a shallow but interesting phase in rock, Reynolds paints it as a vital set of contradictions existing between ideas, between forms, between eras. From the sexually ambiguous personas of its stars, Marc Bolan and David Bowie, through to its entanglement with other genres such as blues, punk, synth-pop and whatever you want to call Kate Bush, glam’s shape-shifting makes it a fascinating lens through which to see the limits of art more generally. Bolan and Bowie are particularly important here, and Reynolds centres the book on their experiences and experiments. Both men borrowed endlessly and unashamedly from other artists, but they nonetheless emerged as utterly original characters in pop’s history. If Bowie has long been understood as such, Shock & Awe makes a strong case for Bolan’s overdue reconsideration.

“He shows that you can not be an innovator in any real sense but still be a total original and a totally fresh thing,” says Reynolds of Bolan. “It’s something to do with the angle of approach, the personality, the emotion that he brings to it. It was new without being innovative, which is the paradox I’m trying to touch on with a lot of glam. In that sense, I’m questioning some of the biases that underpinned Retromania. This idea that there’s this kind of originality in pop music which is not necessarily to do with inventing new kinds of music but of vision, of personality, of charisma, of the total audio-visual, spiritual thing of it.”

2016 has been a year of serious Bowie re-appreciation, and Shock & Awe provides a timely interpretation of his well-documented shape-shifting. Though almost 20 years younger than Bowie, Reynolds says he felt a kind of kinship with him, growing up in a similar suburban, vaguely middle-class environment in the south of England. He recognises Bowie’s self-education and self-formation through the books, films and ideas of European high culture as being at odds with the more quotidian scene of his early life, and suggests this constant reaching beyond himself, this ‘filling up’ with ideas, was a way to cover up a ‘hollowness’ inside.

“My sense is that he felt that sort of hollowness quite painfully,” he says. “Artistically, he turned this emptiness within into a virtue in terms of his pop career where he could hide behind this series of masks. But I think all through his work there’s a lot of anguish about identity and feeling that there’s something missing. Which is how a lot of people feel, a lot of people who don’t necessarily have a social identity mapped out for them and are at all thoughtful about the world. He jumps from identity to identity to mask over this inner emptiness.”

For all that glam aimed at transcendence – of place, of gender, of social status – it most often fell far short, and it is no coincidence that most of the people being “liberated” by glam were young white men. It would take the complex cultural explosion of punk to extend that freedom to others, and Reynolds suggests that the second wave of glam – the synth-pop, disco and New Romantics of the 80s – is a better place to look for a more diverse type of glamour.

“On one hand, the symbols and the signifiers and the imagery [OF GLAM] is attacking or cheekily subverting the patriarchy, because it’s men being unmanly and decadent and fluid – all these things that men weren’t supposed to be. On the other, the patriarchy is fully intact in the sense that it’s almost entirely men in these bands. It’s partly to do with the move that glam makes to explore effeminacy and glamour to an excessive degree. That’s subversive, or at least naughty and cheeky, when men do it, but what is the countermove for women? It would be to de-glamourise themselves, and that didn’t have the same impact as glam.

Suzi Quatro found a way of being glam and also quite tough and tomboyish but it’s odd that only later on do you get glam-influenced women who do find a way of being both glam and feminist, or at least challenging, using their female-ness as a weapon. That’s a paradox I thought was interesting – it reveals the limits of glam in a sense.”

Exposing those limits is what Shock & Awe does best. In the latter part of the book, Reynolds traces glam’s influence through to contemporary pop music, and he joins the dots between the aspirational glamour of Bowie or Roxy Music and the boasting lyrics and Instagram pics of today’s pop stars. From Gary Glitter to Lady Gaga, what connects them all is their ability to sell the dream of stardom, a readymade vision of what life might be like, if only things were different, if only one was recognised.

“I think with Roxy Music, the interviews with them always played up the idea that they were staying in four-star hotels and drinking lots of champagne, living this lifestyle that the fans could only dream of,” says Reynolds. “I think there is that aspirational thing. Bowie too. You felt it was a job for some of these people to live out the fantasy on behalf of their following.”

Shock & Awe proves that glam, like all fantasies, is appealing, complex and illusory – all at the same time.

Shock & Awe is out now and is published by Faber & Faber.

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