All dressed up and ready to rock - again More than two decades later, glam rock, with all its outrageousness and gender-bending, is making a comeback.

November 15, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Pretty boys are nothing new in rock and roll.

There was a time, in fact, when that seemed to be the only boy the music business offered. In the late '50s and early '60s, America was awash in good-looking, all-American types like Ricky Nelson, Pat Boone, Bobby Rydell, Bobby Vee, Frankie Avalon and Fabian. These were the kind of boys girls could adore and mothers could be proud of - clean-cut, wholesome and safe.

In 1971, however, the notion of pretty boys was nowhere near as wholesome. As imagined by David Bowie in the song "Oh! You Pretty Things," pop music's handsome young lads seemed downright subversive. Bowie's boys were not only ready to revel in their own sexuality, but would do so for the benefit of other men.

"Oh! You pretty things," went the chorus. "Don't you know that you're driving your mamas and papas insane?" But the kicker came with the final couplet: "Let me make it plain/Gotta make way for the homo superior."

With that, Bowie (who had cracked the British Top Five a few years earlier with the lost-astronaut saga "Space Oddity") led glam rock out of the closet and into the light. And now, a quarter of a century later, it's back again. Todd Haynes' new film "Velvet Goldmine" (a title cadged from an old Bowie B-side) fictionalizes the birth of glam through the story of Brian Slade, a Bowie-like androgyne who makes himself into a glitter-bedecked bisexual pop star.

Meanwhile, on MTV, Marilyn Manson is offering his own version of the wham-glam-thank-you-ma'am gender scramble. In the video for "The Dope Show," Manson appears as a sort of hermaphroditic space alien, complete with breasts, a bulging crotch and shiny latex skin. Pilfered in part from Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust" persona, and in part from Nicholas Roeg's film "The Man Who Fell to Earth" (which starred Bowie), the clip does its best to recapture the transgressive buzz glam created in the early '70s.

Why is glam - which fell out of favor once punk reared its spike-haired head - back again? Surely, some of it has to do with the essentially cyclical nature of pop culture.

"Going from the deliberately dressed-down, rugged masculinity of grunge and alt-rock - with its whole premium on authenticity - to something so patently unauthentic and artificial does seem like a logical swerve," suggests Simon Reynolds, a senior editor at Spin, and co-author of "The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion and Rock and Roll."

But there's more to it than that. Because both then and now, sex was an important part of glam rock's allure.

Glam, after all, was an outrageous inversion of rock gender roles, one that applied music's sexual energy to intentionally perverse ends. Before glam, rock's reigning sex-gods - Mick Jagger, Jim Morrison, Robert Plant - were manly and in control, presenting a strutting, cock-of-the-walk image onstage.

By contrast, the "pretty things" of the glam era were thin, outrageously dressed, and ambiguously sexual, flouncing about the stage in lipstick and skin-tight trousers. It was as if the whole movement were thumbing its nose at the accepted notion of what made a man sexy onstage.

"The thing that is subversive about [glam] is that it's offering up the man as a sex object, rather than a sex agent," explains Reynolds. "The man becomes a plaything, something that's prettified and very much there for the delectation of women. But also, covertly, for the delectation of other men, as well."

Glam wasn't specifically about gay sex, although that was clearly part of it. Instead, glam emphasized sexuality for its own sake, offering a heady cocktail of narcissism, homoeroticism, and languid perversity. It was more omnisexual than homosexual.

Still, the same-sex element of glam is played out fairly explicitly in "Velvet Goldmine." Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) carries on a love affair with Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), an American character who seems a fusion of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. Even though the relationship is not without a real-life analog - Angela Bowie, the former Mrs. Ziggy Stardust, has long said that Bowie had a fling with Jagger - the love scenes still come as a shock to some viewers.

R.E.M. front man Michael Stipe, one of the film's executive producers, told Rolling Stone magazine that same-sex scenes left some potential backers convinced that "Velvet Goldmine" was "a gay movie." That's not the case, but it does speak to the fact that glam's gender-bending bisexuality still pushes some people's buttons.

Considering how much the rock world has gone through since "Oh! You Pretty Things," that's quite an achievement. But as Reynolds points out, it takes something as outrageous as glam to get the attention of today's jaded, sex-saturated youth.

Things like glam, he says, "are probably the only way you can make sexuality seem subversive in the '90s." Given the preponderance of sexual images in advertising, TV and movies, modern youth has grown blase about it all.

"Having sex is something kids get over with quite early these days," says Reynolds. "It's not something you can imagine is subversive or will change the world, like people did in the '60s."

Of course, nobody expects the love scenes in "Velvet Goldmine" or Marilyn Manson's shock tactics to change the world, either. But for today's youth, if Manson and his ilk anger or offend parents and authority figures, well ... that's close enough.

Pub Date: 11/15/98

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