Writing about glam

‘Why doesn’t anybody write anything about glam rock?’ Such was the title of an article by Jon Stratton, published in an academic journal in 1986, more than a decade after the demise of glam rock. Stratton’s complaint was directed towards his fellow academics, and particularly the youth culture researchers coming out of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University. As he noted, these researchers were very keen to wax lyrical about other youth cultural styles – most obviously punk – but they were much less interested in phenomena like glam rock, which they frequently dismissed as merely ‘consumerist’.

Of course, it’s no longer the case that nobody writes about glam rock. The recent early death of the leading glam star David Bowie in 2016 saw an outpouring of critical commentary, almost all of it gushing with adoration. Inevitably, much of this came from music critics and from fans (or former fans, remembering their own infatuation with Bowie in his early-1970s heyday), but some of it came from academics too. Indeed, in the previous year, Kingston University Professor Will Brooker had reportedly spent a year living as David Bowie in a curiously immersive participant observation study: he dressed in Bowie’s various personas and copied his hairstyles, although it appears he was unwilling or unable to match the star’s prodigious use of cocaine. The bibliography of academic ‘Bowie-ology’, explicating his lyrics, image and performance style, would probably run to many pages.

However, for various reasons, Bowie is somewhat of an exception here. He stands at the more self-conscious, even intellectual end of glam rock: both at the time and subsequently, he presented himself as an ‘artist’, not just a pop star, who demanded to be taken seriously. By contrast, critical writing about the more seemingly disposable or disreputable end of glam rock, particularly that aimed at a younger audience – performers such as Marc Bolan and Gary Glitter, or bands such as Slade and The Sweet – is still comparatively hard to find. Only in the last few years have there been any detailed, book-length studies written by music critics, historians or academics.

As Stratton argues, glam rock posed a problem for the academic study of youth culture, which was developing rapidly at the time. Glam didn’t sit easily with the idea of the Birmingham researchers that youth culture was all about working-class resistance to the ‘dominant ideology’. It seemed to appeal to both middle-class and working-class youth, and it appeared to be much more obviously manufactured by the commercial music industry. Unlike the counter-cultural rock music of the period, it wasn’t interested in authenticity, but in image, performance and display. Any challenges it posed were much more to do with gender and sexuality than with class; and the fans were largely young girls (dismissively identified as ‘teenyboppers’) rather than tough, working-class boys on the streets – who tended to attract the fascination of these mostly male academic researchers.

For example, a contemporary study by criminologists Ian Taylor and David Wall, published in 1976, dismissed what it called the ‘glam cult’ as merely a matter of capitalist ideological exploitation. Taylor and Wall argued that glam rock neutralised the ‘liberatory’ potential of earlier styles of progressive rock music – the music of the hippy counter-culture. Bowie’s apparent bisexuality was, they argued, just another ploy by a capitalist fashion industry looking for new, commercially marketable clothing styles. Bowie was ‘the perfect representative for consumer capitalism to tranquilize the underground’ (that is, the counter-culture). Glam rock, they argued, was one means by which a ‘dying bourgeois society attempts to celebrate its defaults amongst the young… turning again and again the screws of a spiral of nihilism and meaninglessness onto a youth culture that could have been offered as an alternative’. Against this all-conquering form of capitalist manipulation, the fans of glam rock could only be cast as passive consumers, mere victims of false consciousness.

Dick Hebdige’s classic book Subculture: The Meaning of Style, published in 1979, was a little more alert to the dimension of gender and sexuality in glam, suggesting that it offered a space ‘where an alternative identity could be discovered and expressed’. However, Hebdige was also ultimately dismissive: glam, he argued, was ‘frivolous, narcissistic and politically evasive’. While ‘teenyboppers’ clearly could not be taken seriously, the more ‘esoteric’ artists such as Bowie and Roxy Music were also condemned for their ‘extreme foppishness, incipient elitism and morbid pretensions to art and intellect’ – qualities that, he falsely claimed, ‘effectively precluded the growth of a larger mass audience’. While Taylor and Wall contrast the consumerism of glam rock with the authentic working-class rebellion of the skinheads, Hebdige describes glam as a ‘diversion’ from his grand narrative of post-war British youth culture – a narrative which includes teddy boys, mods, Rastas and punks, but excludes much else. Both accounts tend to ignore the sexism, racism and homophobia of their preferred styles, while coming down very hard on glam rock; and they also fail to address the considerable similarities and continuities between glam and other styles like mod and punk.

At the time, it was left to feminist critics to make the case for serious discussion of glam rock and other aspects of teenybopper culture. In 1975, Angela McRobbie and Jenny Garber reported on their research with teenage girls in Birmingham, challenging the masculine focus of academic work on youth culture. They argued that girls’ youth cultural practices were focused more on the bedroom than the street, and had tended to pass under the radar of male researchers. I’ll be considering their account of the teenyboppers later in this essay, but it should be noted now that they did not dissent from their male colleagues’ analysis of glam rock as essentially ‘safe’ and consumerist – nor indeed from their rather dismissive view of its fans.


Writing about glam rock

In this essay, I do want to write about glam rock – and especially about its female fans. David Bowie is an unavoidable presence here, but (in line with my general approach in these essays) I also want to focus on the more neglected, and even disreputable, aspects of this phenomenon. In the following sections, I will attempt to describe and define glam; consider issues of authenticity and performance; discuss the issue of gender and sexuality, and the question of ‘camp’; and finally move on to look at the fans of glam, the so-called teenyboppers of the time.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should make it clear that I am writing about a period in my own teenage years: I was around sixteen when glam rock started to hit the charts. I was perhaps a little too old to be a dedicated fan, but I can recall a period when I had a vaguely bouffant ‘feather cut’, like most of the glam stars on the BBC’s weekly chart music show Top of the Pops; and for a brief period, I even used plum-coloured nail varnish. I wore tight orange T-shirts and tight white flared trousers that deliberately left little to the imagination; I never had platform shoes, although (as a short person) perhaps I should have done. I can recall going to a David Bowie concert in London (probably in 1973) where most of the audience seemed to have come dressed as Ziggy Stardust. By this time, however, I had largely erased any hints of glam in favour of a Lou Reed look – leather bomber jacket, dark T-shirts and non-flared jeans.

My sister, three years younger, was much more of a teenybopper – a term that I applied to her with a tone of utter contempt. She followed bands like the Amen Corner and Love Affair, and she was a particular fan of Marc Bolan in his T. Rex phase. We grew up in a lower-middle-class suburb, on the other side of South London from Bowie, and I’m not entirely sure what my parents would have made of any of this. But given the homophobic remarks that my father used to shout at the TV while my sister and I watched Top of the Pops – ‘is that a boy or a girl?’ ‘is he a pouff?’ – it’s not hard to imagine.

And yet, alongside these interests, I was also a fan of the Rolling Stones, and eventually the Velvet Underground. I had grown up with Tamla Motown. I was also listening to jazz, especially from the American avant garde (Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp), and beginning to figure out how to play the saxophone. And as a student of literature, I had a pseudo-intellectual fascination with Romantic poetry (Rimbaud, Mallarmé), as well as Sartre, Kafka and the rest. I was insufferably pretentious.

This is almost certainly Too Much Information. However, my point here is that these youthful identifications are frequently temporary and hybrid. Different youth cultural styles exist alongside each other; and they are often taken up in uneasy, awkward combinations. Their influence is usually brief and partial. It would be wrong to assume that they are simply and directly diffused from the elite (or indeed from the capitalist culture industries) to the population at large. In practice, cultural change is typically indirect and uneven: its echoes are heard and felt, but they are often muffled and indistinct.

Read more…