Jan 13 2012 11:30am

The Chameleon Man: David Bowie as Society’s Alien

So, is calling someone a “chameleon” a true compliment, or the backhanded sort?

It’s the most common term used to describe David Bowie, and it’s certainly apt. But while some are pleased with that aspect of his creativity, it’s often used as a put down. A way of saying, “well, he has no true artistic voice, so he just has to keep putting on a costume.” It’s not an entirely fair analysis, especially as that is sort of the point.

In fact, sometimes I think it’s all too easy to imagine David Bowie as an actual alien, reflecting the world back at us the only way he knows how: by continuing to change his face.

Whether or not it’s your favorite Bowie album (I know it’s considered to be a little too hip for the hipsters these days), if you’ve never listened to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, you’re missing out on what should be considered the greatest concept album of all time. And it’s not just because of the music; if it were, there would be quite a few other contenders for the spot. The fact remains that, while this album was displayed as new material in record stores, Ziggy Stardust was a living creature. David Bowie had made him real to the public, the main event, the alien from another world who had prophesied his own destruction.

He created a myth that people could reach out and touch.

Of course it was clever, but anyone who knows of the problems Bowie faced in this and some of his other incarnations knows that he was not immune to the legend. The character of Ziggy took him over, the same way the Thin White Duke would only a few years later. It is perhaps part the nature of superstardom, but also seems to have been embedded in Bowie’s character. Sometimes its easier to put on the mask and let the mask be you for a while. It should be a form of protection, a way of saving yourself from the spotlight, but in those early years he seemed to get lost. It’s the sort of thing you might imagine of Newton from The Man Who Fell to Earth, or any number of science fiction stories — the alien not realizing how easy it is to get caught up in human emotion and forgetting who he actually is amid the mob.

It could be part of the reason why he has gone back on some of his more infamous comments from those years; after all, Bowie did claim to be bisexual then, and rumors have run rampant on that account over the years. He has slept with everyone from Lou Reed to Jagger if you believe everything you hear. But was that really him, or was that Ziggy and Aladdin Sane? Are they one and the same? It’s entirely possible that the whole idea of bisexuality entered the alien’s persona because his wife at the time, Angela Bowie, was bisexual and had egged it on. It is also possible that Bowie picked up on that aspect of culture because it was not being examined just yet: it was a post-Stonewall world, but bisexuals as a group had not endured much exposure. More intriguingly, he might have recognized his own feelings of being the “outsider” in them and used that as a springboard to throw outrageousness of all kinds in the public’s face. It’s certain that kids of all orientations related to this man from another world because they could find their own feelings of pain and discovery reflected back at them, even through the layers of glitter makeup.

Bowie was also frightfully adept at playing up certain physical aspects that made him seem alien, one being mydriasis, the effect leaving one of his pupils permanently larger. It naturally lent him an other-wordly look for the majority of his career, which is amusing when you know that it occured due to a fight he’d had in his youth; he was punched in the eye. There was also his early training as a mime, something that allowed him to be incredibly expressive with his body. Androgyny is a given, gracing him with an image that always left a lasting impression. The intense cultivation of his image across the decades is more fascinating that any pop star before or since.

But that isn’t the end to Bowie’s more alien aspects. His phases of self-exploration run an impossible gamut, more a mirror of what he saw around him than a personality; his near self destruction as the Thin White Duke, the experimentation and recovery of the late 70s as he created the Berlin trilogy, the knife-sharp commentary spoken through the mouth of a sad-faced Pierrot in 1980’s Scary Monsters. In the end, Bowie never stopped evolving, never stopped being able to show us what we looked like by channeling the moods and thoughts of eras through his own personas. Even his more commercial faces, the largely disappointing arena rock he produced throughout the 80s, has a nasty edge to it; the music videos for “Let’s Dance” and “China Girl” are both weighed down with serious political messages, even between sex on a beach and disgustingly catchy basslines.

Many rock stars have a taste for ultra-high fashion, allowing it to define them — we all know Lady Gaga is the latest in a tried and true trend. But what made Bowie interesting is how each character he took on seemed to have a uniform of sorts, their own personal style. Ziggy and Aladdin Sane both had the famous red hair and a penchant for jumpsuits, the Thin White Duke had a black and white palette with buttondowns and a love of tailored waistcoats, the 80s saw him in pastel suits with big blond hair.

Then he entered an industrial rock and electronica phase in the mid-90s, and gained an interest in African dance rhythms that led to the Outside and Earthling (pictured at the top) albums. He cultured a more severe look with cropped hair and a lack of makeup, but was typically seen in frock coats, usually one displaying the Union Jack flag. (Actually, it almost seems as though Earthling might be titled and produced with that specific album cover art to remind us that Bowie actually is from planet Earth — and very, very British.) The clothes created for his Reality Tour in 2004 were tattered and worn — an appropriate look for his single “New Killer Star,” which dealt with his thoughts following the events of 9/11. Fact is, based on his haircut and what he is wearing, you can usually guess what year it is when looking at any given picture of Bowie. That’s how distinct and varied his styles have been over time, how many different people he has elected to be.

Is the man a human chameleon? A figure from another planet who can only mimic what he sees? I don’t think we’ll ever really know, but he certainly deserves the adoration he inspires and the respect of every music lover out there. Perhaps those people who sneer at the term “chameleon” are merely jealous that they could never pull it off half so well.

Emily Asher-Perrin has a tattoo across her back and shoulder from the Bowie song “Reality” which reads: “Never look over reality’s shoulder.” It makes her very happy whenever she remembers it’s there. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

Jenny Thrash
1. Sihaya
I think the only reason the word "chameleon" might have become an insult over the years is that it's also been permanently applied to Madonna. I'd say that it's probably more accurate to says she's closer to pure pop cultural image reflection than Bowie. One adjective fits two performers differently, but just as well.
Wesley Parish
2. Aladdin_Sane
Well, if we are going to be pedantic, a chameleon changes colour to blend into the background, to avoid being seen. David Bowie changed his stage identity to stand out from the background, to be even more clearly seen, even while taking up - and taking off - various aspects of it.

He seems to have had difficulty in taking the Rest Of The World as seriously as it wished: I think that was the major reason why I cottoned on to him. I spent most of my school years ignoring the ROTW (including the school, natch) because of the combination of my background and personality meant I couldn't take it seriously enough.

And it's painfully clear that the Thin White Duke was a parody of Reagan (and probably The Iron Lady) as a Rock Star, now I look back on it. My fellow school mates despised the Gipper as a self-referential zero. It somehow seems fitting that that was the decade David Bowie almost blew the gearbox. Parodying the self-indulgent in power by self-indulgence in escapism ... doesn't work, obviously.

In the end, though, he was just having fun.
Emily Asher-Perrin
3. EmilyAP
@Aladdin_Sane - You're right about the definition of chameleon, of course. But it seems that music scholars are intent on keeping the term whether it's appropriately used or not. :)

The Thin White Duke was a figure Bowie maintained in 1976, however, well before Thatcher and Reagan had been elected (it was Gerald Ford as POTUS at the time), so I don't he was going for parody at that point in time. There are a lot of layers to the Duke, Bowie's cocaine use being a primary focal point and a brief flirtation with facism being a more frightening aspect of it. He has since blamed the latter on his addiction, but has never claimed that he was making direct political commentary in that particular phase of his career.

I think the most clear commentary he made during the 80s was through the Scary Monsters album, and also through the sudden lack of thought put into his music during the rest of that decade. He did once say that he knew he couldn't have done better than Madonna and Kylie Minogue during the 80s because he simply didn't care. (He actually used much stronger wording than that ;)

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