Written by Beulah | 11th March 2020
Over 50 years since it first came to the world’s attention, glam rock is still the camp, extravagant and audacious younger sibling of the rock genre family. Not only did glam rock inspire musicians like David Bowie, Freddie Mercury and Marc Bolan, it also challenged traditional views of masculinity, and broke a lot of barriers along the way.
“Growing up in the early 70's when music was all-important in youth culture, I remember how glam rock hit a generation”, says music expert Patrick Vranken. “Long hair and unisex clothing, the "not sure if you're a boy or a girl" anthem... it was confusing, worrying and exciting at the same time. And in a very rural and traditional society there was no-one you could turn to for psychological advice or a glimpse of understanding in those days. Just those Rock Gods you would have followed anywhere”.
For many fans, the moment Marc Bolan swaggered onto the Top of the Pops stage and started singing “well she's my woman of gold” was electrifying. Wrapped in white satin and sparkling with glitter, Bolan was brimming with traditional feminine symbols at the start of a decade that would be known for hyper masculinity. Not only was Bolan wearing feminine clothes, he was also singing about his feminine side. Take the lyric “I'm a labour of love in my Persian gloves.” The ancient Greek philosopher Xenophon condemned Persian men’s habit of wearing gloves as effeminate, imbuing the Persian gloves mentioned in Hot Love with an extra layer of gender-bending meaning and sense of protest.
The visual stylings of glam rock are often characterised as androgynous, playful and subversive. T. Rex’s rendition of Hot Love on the BBC’s flagship music program was the first time that many British and international viewers encountered this deliberate flouting of traditional gender roles. This performance arguably helped open up conversations about how clothes contribute to our gender identity.
Shifting identities became a feature of glam rock. Stage names changed. Musicians created masculine, feminine, and unapologetically androgynous personas. And David Bowie was a pioneer in this and somebody who played with his identity from a young age. Gifted with a seemingly effortless capacity for reinvention, he evolved his music style as quickly as he changed his outrageous outfits. David Jones became David Bowie (to avoid confusion with The Monkees’ Davy Jones). The hard rock stylings of his album The Man Who Stole The World shifted into the art rock sound of Hunky Dory and then immortality beckoned with the glam rock classic: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
During his glam rock period Bowie came out (first as gay and then as bisexual) and wrote hit after hit about the experience of being homosexual. When we consider that homosexuality had only been decriminalised in the UK in 1967, Bowie’s success with mainstream audiences seems even more impressive.
Bowie's song Rebel Rebel epitomised his success and sound. With a foot-thumping, spine-tingling guitar rift at its centre, it was a hit, reaching number five in the UK singles charts. Taking inspiration from trans rockstar Jayne County (Rebel Rebel included a lyric taken from County’s trans anthem Queenage Baby); the song saw Bowie sing: “You've got your mother in a whirl 'Cause she's not sure if you're a boy or a girl.” Less than two years later, Bowie would move to Berlin to be with his lover: Dutch transgender model Romy Haag. Beloved by music critics and fans alike, Rebel Rebel’s success would have been unthinkable less than a decade before and it demonstrated the true power of glam rock to disrupt gender norms.
Queen frontman Freddie Mercury was flamboyant, charming, shameless and coy, all within the space of a single song. He was the one who suggested the name Queen – at the time a derogatory name for gay men – and he continued to date both men and women. As a performer, Mercury showcased a dazzling mix of overt sexuality, theatrical titillation and vocal acrobatics. These themes resurfaced time and time again, both in Queen’s music and Mercury’s personal life.
Mercury began dabbling with changing identities when he legally changed his name from Farrokh Bulsara to Freddie Mercury. Adopting a different name is commonplace in show business, but this new moniker created a deliberate distance between Zanzibar-born Farrokh and rock god Freddie. The 1970s music industry tended to privilege white, heterosexual, UK and USA-born men. Seen through the eyes of a Zanzibar immigrant with Indian heritage and a burgeoning bisexuality, it’s heartbreaking but easy to understand why Farrokh decided to become Freddie.
While many would argue that Bohemian Rhapsody sits firmly within the “rock anthem” category; its glam rock stylings cannot be denied. Mercury’s signature onstage look of soft, floaty, feminine clothing, smoking eyeliner and rosy lipstick contrasted perfectly with his powerful lyrical acrobatics. Bohemian Rhapsody is even considered to be Mercury’s coming out song. And when we remember that multiple generations of straight, cis men have raised their voices to sing-along to a song about leaving heterosexual life behind, it’s clear that Bohemian Rhapsody had a profound effect, conscious or not, on our understanding of gender and sexual identity.
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