Performing Glam Rock
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006.
Reviewed by Charles Holdefer
In an era of identity politics, Philip Auslander’s Performing Glam Rock seems not only timely but inevitable. This volume is interesting for its insights and also as an example of a certain kind of academic discourse, which is thorough and intelligent while sometimes coming perilously close to breaking a butterfly upon the wheel.
Auslander, a professor in the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture at Georgia Tech, describes his approach as performance analysis, which is widely practiced in theatre studies but, as he points out, somewhat neglected in discussions of pop culture, which often favour the sociological and historical. Auslander’s method, which is rooted in close reading, allows him to avoid rehashing familiar narratives of reception, about why a particular performer was a “media sensation.” His introductory chapters on glam precursors and rock music show an impressive knowledge of the context, but this expertise serves mainly to inform later chapters about the specific performance strategies of Marc Bolan, David Bowie and Suzie Quatro, and, more briefly, Bryan Ferry and Roy Wood.
The central premise is clearly and often stated: glam was the first major post-countercultural genre of rock music. This argument is convincingly demonstrated and runs much deeper than pop trivia: it echoes much of the ongoing debate about authenticity.
Authenticity was always a dominant value in sixties counterculture and in rock and roll, and Auslander enumerates its conventions, notably an emphasis on spontaneity and community with the audience, and, particularly in psychedelia, a cultivation of interiority and virtuosity. Most of the time, “the idea of authenticity entailed a necessary antipathy to theatricality” . There were exceptions, of course, but these were easy enough to rationalize. (For instance, Jimi Hendrix’s flamboyance could be seen as an expression of his spontaneity and virtuosity.) Otherwise, spectacle was suspect, considered a kind of sell-out or “establishment tool.” For all its liberationist posturing, the counterculture could be puritanical and fiercely protective of “authentic” orthodoxy, for example in the “scandal” provoked when folksinger Phil Ochs appeared in a gold lamé suit at Carnegie Hall.
Glam exploded this po-faced pomposity. Just as Bob Dylan’s switch to electric had earlier challenged habits of hearing, glam challenged habits of seeing. By refusing to pretend to be deep, it not only re-injected some fun into music, it also, adventitiously, did a better job of addressing certain kinds of truth, notably about sexuality.
Despite an occasional nod to Judith Butler and Hélène Cixous (and later, anthropologist Victor Turner and sociologist Erving Goffman), Auslander’s main theoretical premise revolves around the distinction, put forward by the performance theorist Richard Schechner, between “doing” and “showing doing” . This goes to the heart of glam sensibility. Auslander, echoing Geoffrey Stokes and Alain Dister, points to the performance of Sha Na Na at Woodstock as a watershed moment (a “glamticipation”, he calls it) that was grasped by few observers at the time. More than a mere nostalgia act, Sha Na Na and its performed personae were pointing to the future.
Auslander’s chapter on Marc Bolan depicts his gradual evolution from a mod (at the age of 15, he was already quoted in a magazine enthusing about his groovy gear), to an introspective acoustic hippie (who always performed sitting down), to an electrified glitter elf. The arrival of T. Rex recalibrated conventions of rock performance.
This is not a new story but Auslander casts an analytical eye, avoiding cliché and fanzine hype. Some of the anecdotes remain irresistible: for instance, Bolan’s claim in interviews that he’d been “exposed to magic at an early age when he lived with a wizard in France” . (This wizard, it turns out, was only an American actor and tourist.) Pre-glam Bolan is a source of plenty of unintentional humour, which Auslander seems reluctant to point out. Of course it’s a matter of taste, but it is possible to smile (and wince, too) at early music by Tyrannosaurus Rex, with its cheesy Arcadian lyrics and Tolkienesque Middle-Earth geekiness. The first album (1968) was called My People Were Fair And Had Sky In Their Hair But Now They’re Content To Wear Stars On Their Brows. (A hint of glitter to come?) It probably isn’t as ghastly as it sounds.
In any case, Auslander stresses that sound mattered less than the visual. He also takes into account cultural differences between Great Britain and the US, above all about gender-bending, reminding the reader of Martha Bayles’ observation that glam transvestism raised fewer eyebrows in Britain, probably because “cross-dressing has always been a part of British popular entertainment” . Such music hall influences were largely absent in American rock, thus the New York Dolls and Alice Cooper registered more rebelliously at home. Or, one can consider the case of Gary Glitter, who, for a time, occupied a similar niche to HP Sauce—an omnipresent staple in Britain, while an unknown taste in America.
The book provides an improbable-sounding but actually useful three-column table of “Canonical Glam Rock Artists” which allows the reader to compare, chronologically, UK, US and US/UK performers (Suzi Quatro and Sparks fill this last category). Auslander is rigorous to underline the variety of music styles and the seeming impossibility of pinning down a “glam sound.” And yet—though it probably can never get beyond a bar juke-box debate—one can contest this claim, and argue that a certain kind of early glam sound did exist and was identifiable, at least in the limited experience of this reviewer, who grew up in rural America among young listeners who were the practical equivalent of laboratory rats, because we had never seen British TV (and in fact were unaware of the existence of Top of the Pops); nor had we seen, in other venues, T. Rex or David Essex; but we could detect, nonetheless, a musical affinity and the stamp of a newish sound. Also, The Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz,” with its campy introduction (“Are you ready, Steve?”), seemed like an audible cut from the same cloth. No one even knew the word “glam,” but our ears were on to something. “Radar Love” by the Dutch group Golden Earring, though not mentioned in this volume, joins these selections, too.
That said, Auslander is surely right about the pre-eminence of the visual. Listeners from other places caught up later. Glam’s insight was that style can trump authenticity, that surfaces not only show but shield. What’s the point of an earnest and “authentic” two-minute guitar solo performed while looking at your hands, if all you demonstrate is that you’re an authentic twat? It could be more fun to dress up, to become someone else. And even if that fails, and you still look like a twat (without question, glam left behind an enormous photo trail), well, you were only playing around, anyway. No reason to get so serious about it.
Enter David Bowie. Auslander’s chapter on Ziggy and other incarnations sympathetically addresses Bowie’s theatrical pretensions, which pushed glam forward while threatening to bring the whole circus tent crashing down around him. Auslander also reminds the reader of other ingredients in Bowie’s mutability, of early influences like Anthony Newley, the most un-rock persona imaginable. Perhaps the key here resides in the volume’s emphasis on performance. As Michael Watts said of Bowie/Ziggy, “he’s as camp as a row of tents” . Since Bowie’s sexual personae were resolutely performed, they occupied a very different space from a gay “coming out” that sought social validation in terms of authenticity, as an expression of being true to oneself. Bowie was true to his roles. Auslander shows that while Bolan inserted and performed new images in concerts, Bowie reconceived the concert itself as all image and artifice.
The discussion of “second wave” glam artists Roy Wood and Bryan Ferry builds on these precedents. To Bowie’s sense of theatre, Ferry added fashion. Look at the liner notes of a Roxy Music album and you find, in addition to traditional credits for musicians and studio personnel, mentions for “clothes, make-up & hair” . Roxy Music also brought in satirical elements, for instance in “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” which complicated (and perhaps undercut) their pose. As for Roy Wood, Auslander sees his work with Wizzard and as a solo performer as creating so many identities, and so many surfaces, that the result began to seem arbitrary. “Arguably, by constructing a persona whose very identity resided in its lack of identity, Wood parodied glam rock even as he participated in it” . It was only a matter of time before a performance included gorilla-suited men throwing cream pies .
So a little glitter goes a long way. In the last chapter, “Suzie Quatro Wants to Be Your Man”, the tone shifts. Quatro is the only female in the “glam canon,” and Auslander is at pains to remind readers that women in the rock world, as elsewhere, suffered from misogyny and exploitation. This is unquestionably true but there is a paradox in his argument that Quatro, working in a male-dominated rock world, was obliged “to establish her authenticity” . After all, so much of glam revolved around debunking the idea of authenticity. Auslander goes on to read layers of meaning in Quatro’s “female machisma” to show that her persona was not really “critiquing” or ironic, but an aggressive sexuality that went unpunished, and therefore was not misogynistic. It constituted, in Judith Halberstom’s words, “the healthful alternative to what are considered the histrionics of conventional femininities” .
This is plausible, and Auslander’s political agenda is worthy enough, but a reader might also be forgiven for wondering, in light of his earlier chapters: is that the point of glam? It’s supposed to be hygienic? Auslander is also at pains to prove that Quatro was, after all, sufficiently subversive to be counted a “disruptive diva,” the sort of performer who respected, at the end of the day, Lori Burns and Mélisse Lafrance’s invocation of “imperatives to which female rock artists must respond if their work is to be considered valuable from the point of view of gender critique” [206-207]. It is reasonably argued, but the perspective seems to have narrowed. As if what Suzi Quatro really wanted was tenure.
On the whole, however, Performing Glam Rock is expansive and attune to ironies. There are some repetitions (e.g., Chinnichap are introduced twice), and highly detailed examinations of pop songs from pre-glam Bolan and Bowie that will probably interest only the most devoted. The discussion of German television appearances of T. Rex, or a footnote recounting three different versions of how Bolan came to use glitter on Top of the Pops [196n], strain the butterfly’s back. For a subject such as this one, more photos would have been desirable—aside from a colour cover of Ziggy Stardust, there is just a handful of black and white plates—but this absence is probably due to the publishing constraints, not the author.
In his conclusion, Auslander convincingly argues that glam was not just a look, but a space, a liminal phenomenon. Its queer identities were accessible to people of any sexual orientation. It was—and still is—a place for the imagination, and this accounts for its appeal, and for the merit of this book.