Ziggy over Zarathustra

My hypothesis is that David Bowie succeeded where Friedrich Nietzsche failed.

20th century musicians like Bowie and Prince can be seen as to exemplify Nietzsche’s ideal of the ‘œnew philosopher’. They combine intellectual and spiritual lyrics with unprecedented style and music. Through means of mass communication and mechanical reproduction, their work has been able to resonate with an audience on a large scale. and take part in defining the cultural landscape.

In visual arts, Andy Warhol can be seen as such a new philosopher who shares recognition among artists, scholars, and the general cultural public. Indeed, Arthur C. Danto points to Warhol as the moment where art turns into philosophy.

In the present day, the means of reproduction and dissemination have shifted again because of the digital revolution.

Learning from Bowie, one could figure out what it was that made him so successful in articulating his sensibilities, and how his methodologies would translate to contemporary modes of production.

The goal is an art/design practice which:

  • takes place on the nexus of pop culture and institutionalised art
  • is at the nexus of private introspection and public dissemination
  • readily explores all available technology in order to do so.

Two more examples come to mind: Jenny Holzer, whose truisms always precipitate on the edge between worn clichés and individual confessions, and who claims public space through all media for these inward looking statements.

And Prince. Prince, when recording the vocals for the Sign o’ the times album, would do so in the control room of the studio, sending away all engineers after they prepared the session, leaving him alone with the microphone to sing. I am struck by the contrast between this highly inward looking ritual, and its imprint as an artifact that is reproduced literally millions of times.

1: Why are Bowie and Nietzsche similar?

In the early 1970ies David Bowie starts to refer to Friedrich Nietzsche in his lyrics, on both his albums ‘œthe Man Who Sold the World’ and ‘œHunky Dory’. In the song Quicksand he sings: I’m not a prophet or a stone age man, just a mortal with potential of a superman’. And: ‘œShould I kiss the viper’s fang, and herald loud the death of man?’

The direct successor to these records, the 1972 ‘œthe Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ seems to forego Nietzsche references for images of rock stardom.

In a way, though, this album is much more Nietzschean than its predecessors.

The narrative of a rockstar from space making it on earth before his eventual fall, can be seen as a more catchy instance of the supermen of the previous records. Moreover, the work can be directly compared to Nietzsche’s ‘œAlso sprach Zarathustra’ in which a prophet comes down from his cave to do his teachings to the public.

Both works can be read as thinly veiled autobiographies, where the choice of an unusual medium verse (Nietzsche) and rock (Bowie) allows the author to put in a lot of his ideas and fears and aspirations, that might otherwise have come across as megalomania or sacrilege. The process of mystification through the invention of the characters of Ziggy and Zarathustra allows the authors to take the freedom to reinvent themselves. Bowie later said: ‘œit was like rewriting myself, really’.

2: Why are Bowie and Nietzsche different?

When looking back on the Ziggy project Bowie stresses the aspect of embracing the present:

“Writers like George Steiner had nailed the sexy term post-culture and it seemed a jolly good idea to join up the dots for rock. The main platform would be, other than shoes, ‘œwe are the future, now’ and the one way of celebrating that was to create it by the only means at our disposal. With, of course, a rock ‘œn’ roll band.”

For Bowie the future was now. Whereas for Nietzsche the future was still clearly in the future. After writing Zarathustra he had conceded that his philosophy would not be read and appreciated in his own time. His subsequent book ‘œJenseits von gut und böse’ has as its subtitle: prelude to a philosophy of the future. He also thinks it will not be him that is going to fulfill philosophy’s potential. He sketches the need for ‘œnew philosophers’: ‘œin forerunners, in men of the future, who in the present shall fix the constraints and fasten the knots which will compel millenniums to take NEW paths’.

Man of the future, acting in the present. An apt description of Ziggy.

The difference in self-image mirrors the difference in reception by their contemporaries. Bowie managed to find a massive crowd, Nietzsche never did during his lifetime. And although both men went through difficulties following the release of their seminal works, Bowie ended up on top. Nietzsche went insane.

3: Why could Bowie do what Nietzsche could not?

That Nietzsche had to leave for the future, what Bowie could achieve in his own time, can be attributed to several factors.

In the first place, Nietzsche was alone. And nobody can do anything alone.

We have already touched on the enabling role of modern mass media. This for me is exemplified by by the contrast between the highly inward looking ritual of the recording session, and its imprint as an artifact (the record) that is meant to be reproduced literally millions of times. Prince, when recording the vocals for the Sign o’ the times album, would do so in the control room of the studio, sending away all engineers after they prepared the session, leaving him alone with the microphone to sing.

Yet there is another important aspect: the rise of interdisciplinary practice.

Both men possessed (and in Bowie’s case still possess) a range of skills.

Bowie was skilled both with words and with music, and had experience as an actor. With the Ziggy project he added his own talents to these of a host of others in a decidedly transdisciplinary endeavour. Bowie contributed songs, words, voice and looks. The musicians, the producer and the engineer contributed further to the sound. The photographic look was crafted by Mick Rock, the suits were designed by a Japanese fashion designer, and even Bowie’s hair style was conceived especially for him by his hairdresser. The early shows were inspired by the ‘œExploding plastic inevitable’ multi media shows Warhol made with The Velvet Underground. The shows featured elaborate set designs, projections and a mime group.

Nietzsche apparently had a broad range of talents and interests as well. He was quite musical and wrote Lieder. Next to that, ‘œAlso Sprach Zarathustra’ is full of references to dance. In her book: ‘œNietzsche’s Dancers: Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, and the Revaluation of Christian Values’ Kimerer L. LaMothe argues that these references should not be seen as metaphors: dance was important to Nietzsche in its own right.

In his work, however, there was no way yet for these different media to fruition. It is just language that has to pull it off.

The world just wasn’t transdisciplinary yet in the 19th century. It would take the 20th century avant-garde to change that.

A question I would like to ask is if language alone could ever suffice for the kind of questions Bowie and Nietzsche were asking. There is a maniacal element to their thinking which I suspect can only really be sublimated in a performative setting. I know for my self, at least, that I talk better when I perform.


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