David Bowie Ellen Willis - Essay

Ellen Willis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In England, David Bowie may become—may already be—a real star, but in the American context he looks more like an aesthete using stardom as a metaphor. (p. 171)

Part of the problem is Bowie's material. "Hunky Dory," the first of his albums to get much critical attention, has become one of my favorite records, but his more recent stuff bores me. When "Hunky Dory" came out, I took one look at the album cover—a soft, vague picture of the artist looking soft and vague—and anticipated a soft, vague sensibility. Instead, Bowie turned out to be an intelligent, disciplined, wry Lou Reed freak. To say that his current opus, "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars"…, fulfills the threat of the "Hunky Dory" cover would be unfair, but not very. Some of the songs are O.K.—"Hang On to Yourself," "Starman," even "Five Years" when it manages to transcend the self-pity inherent in its theme (the end of the world). But the idea of a pop star from outer space (read pop star as explorer, prophet, poet of technology, exotic on the outside but merely human on the inside, and so on) just doesn't make it, except maybe as a spoof, and Bowie—or should I say Ziggy?—takes it seriously. (pp. 171-72)

Ellen Willis, "Bowie's Limitations," in The New Yorker (© 1972 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XLVIII, No. 34, October 14, 1972, pp. 171-73.