Where Are We Now?

‘Glam was always more than a visual style, and can be meaningfully understood as an attitude or state of mind, its expression inseparable from its cultural and societal context.’
Darren Pih, curator of Glam! The Performance of Style.

Ever since David Bowie’s airwave-shaking, pre-breakfast announcement that he was releasing his first single in a decade, ‘Where Are We Now’, the precursor to the beautiful The Next Day album, the scene was set to celebrate not just Bowie, but the performative, playful and daftly posturing side of pop he helped to create.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that recent months have ushered in a glittery wave of nostalgia for all things glam, and a much deserved look back on the pop music and style of the early 70s.  Alongside Bowie’s musical return, there’s the V&A’s stunning Bowie Is! exhibition (the fasting pre-selling show of the museum’s history); Tate Liverpool's exhaustive Glam! The Performance of Style show; the National Gallery’s late works by Richard Hamilton (while not a strictly ‘glammy’ artist, Hamilton was a huge influence on Roxy Music, having tutored and mentored Bryan Ferry at Newcastle University); Biba at Brighton Pavilion, as well as countless smaller celebrations of the era’s visual culture.

The feverish excitement around the Bowie release and the audience for this crop of exhibitions is as much thanks to people in their teens, twenties and thirties as it is to people who remember glam the first time round. Yet the discussions around them almost exclusively look to the past. So to paraphrase Bowie, where are we now?

Taking on the baton from Bowie, Roxy Music, Marc Bolan and Slade et al, today there’s a tight-knit scene around a number of thriving London clubnights such as Glamracket, Some Weird Sin and Suffragette City, packed with people who were barely a glimmer in the eye of the original glam generation.

But what is it about glam that seduces this new generation of be-glittered youngsters?

‘I think it’s the escapism’, says Heidi Heelz, founder of Glamracket and former member of now-defunct Roxy Music tribute band, the brilliantly-named Proxy Music. ‘It’s very glamorous – it's the same reason people are interested in the 1930s and Hollywood. They’re aspiring to be something really sensational.’

When times are hard, people look to their own construction of identity to try and make sense of the world. Or at least, temporarily withdraw from it through a series of self-reinventions.  

‘I wondered if I should try and be me’, we hear Bowie ponder in the V&A show audio guide. ‘Or if I couldn’t cope with that, it was much easier to be someone else.’

It’s no surprise that during times of escalating unemployment, recession, inequality and on a less political note, the torpor of much current chart music, appetites turn to something a little more peculiar, playful and fun.  

‘The last 15 - 20 years have been a bit of a celebration of the mundane’, sighs Sophia Wyeth, glam DJ and founder of clubnight Suffragette City. ‘People in the charts have been the boys with acoustic guitars and jeans, and landfill indie. I think glam is a dramatic reaction to that.’

For all its flamboyance, it’s no coincidence that an interest in a glammy otherworld is symptomatic of times of social and political unease.

Wyeth points to the gradual infiltration of glam-driven nuances into popular culture in recent times. There is, of course, Lady Gaga’s obvious Bowie-homage in her lightening-bolt face paint, the stomping silver and outrageous camp of Scissor Sisters; the more widespread appropriation of gay subculture and theatricality into fashion and pop.

On a smaller level, there’s no doubt that much of the hipster sparkle that spewed out of the Kingsland Road and Hoxton side-streets in the mid-noughties owed more than a small debt to glam. Jodie Harsh’s legendary Boombox and Foreign nights were about as glammy and pomp-packed as they come, yet it seems that to outright reference glam was – and perhaps still is – somewhat taboo for the east London hipster elite.

‘It’s a bit less “cool” than, say, the 60s or rockabilly scene – and less cliquey’, says Wyeth.

‘Cool’, almost by definition – is about disinterest, nonchalance, and intently studied insouciance. The antithesis, then, of glam.

Wyeth adds, ‘Glam’s not afraid to be cheesy - when you’re young and trying to be cool and attractive cheesy is the last thing you want to be.’

‘Glam’s FUN!’, laughs Heelz.  ‘The element of humour is very important. There’s a lot more knowingness, and you don’t get that with other scenes.’

This notion of egalitarianism –  a flagrant eschewing of the tiring hierarchical struggle for ‘cool’ - is a direct continuation of 70s glam’s class-democracy.

Glam was one of the few movements in style and music to successfully traverse working-class youth and high-art – Woolworth’s till-girl and arch, art-school aesthete. As Bowie proved, you can carve an entire career from throwing on and off any persona you fancy.

Wyeth says, ‘Glam’s divided into two camps - art school like Bowie and Roxy and Sparks, which are all very high concept and glossy and everyone sits around watching Fritz Lang films; and there’s the working class bands like Slade and brickies in eyeliner. I think it’s the only subculture that does that.’

Indeed, glam can’t simply be distilled into a neat little glitterpot filed next to ‘camp’ and ‘excess’. For British youngsters of all backgrounds, it provided a new outlet of expression. Everything was there to be subverted, and everything was for the taking. High art met low culture in a totally new way.

It’s this element so expertly showcased in Tate Liverpool’s Glam! The Performance of Style, an examination of the visual arts that informed and accompanied the movement which proves there was – and still is - far more to it than big hair and surreptitiously borrowing your sister’s eyeliner.

Focusing on the years 1971-75, the show demonstrates the era’s interplay of mass culture and high art – much like Pop Art before it – but with a louche liveliness, playful exuberance and a whole heap more gender-bending.

Darren Pih, curator of the exhibition, says, ‘Glam collapsed the barriers between high and low art – there was a use of theatricality and the excess of camp. Glam was a catalyst for personal and social transformation.’

In his Glamology lecture, Pih places glam within the context of the post-Stonewall era, charting the movement as concurrent with new ideas and visibility surrounding homosexuality, as well as second-wave feminism. With a renewed spotlight on issues such as gay marriage and a wave of feminist concerns hitting headlines again and again (Pussy Riot, gender-based pay disparities, university campus sexism …the list goes on); the issues that surrounded glam the first time round are not so different to those swirling our consciousness and media in 2013.

So have we really made that much progress in the last forty years? And how much did glam help push people into being more accepting of boys in make-up and the idea of a more fluid view of sexuality?

‘To an extent it’s much more acceptable to be gay or bi and an element of that, I think, was down to glam,’ says Wyeth. ‘[A key moment] was that performance on Top of the Pops of Starman, when Bowie put his arm round Mick Ronson. So I think an element of progress is down to that.’

But while there’s undoubtedly a flourishing glam subculture, is it just a tribute to a beloved bygone era, or is the influence of glam being seized upon, plundered and reinvented – surely the most flattering tribute a style can be paid?

Heelz says, ‘I think it’s still influential. The first people to be directly influenced are Suede and Denim, which had two members of a glitter band in them. There was a glamrock resurgence in the periphery of Britpop, I mean Placebo appeared in Velvet Goldmine.’

Wyeth adds, ‘You can see the influence on bands like Tame Impala - Elephant is so glam – it’s really got that glitter band, stompy beat going on.  There are still people who recognise the brilliance of glam and are making it their own.’

At a time when – like the early 70s – Britain seems constantly on the verge of collapsing into itself, a little sparkle, the simplistic stomp of a glam rock beat and an opportunity to reinvent yourself as whatever the hell you want are undoubtedly alluring.

I ask Pih why he thinks there’s been such a resurgence in interest in glam this year.

‘There are a lot of parallels between then and now’, he says.

‘People are looking to the past to try and make sense of the present.’

Written by Emily Gosling
Images as credited