by Justin Cash
Ziggy Stardust, androgynous alter ego of pop icon David Bowie, epitomized the zeitgeist of early 1970s Britain. In a society that was becoming increasingly sexually liberated, wealthy and adventurous, the ostentatious combination of masculine and feminine characteristics in one individual drew an enormous cult following from all walks of life. Arguably, Bowie inadvertently lit the fuse that sparked a marked musical and cultural shift, inspiring a whole generation of gender-bending musicians.
Throughout the 70s, Boy George, Gary Numan and Prince were just a few of the artists that adopted an androgynous sexual identity. They were part of a culture of rebellion, pioneering not only in terms of image but also in terms of music.
The 1980s saw more female musicians embrace masculine characteristics in their appearance, such as Annie Lennox and Tracy Thorn. What is more, androgyny crossed racial boundaries when the likes of Grace Jones began to adopt a powerful, intense, hyper-masculine persona.
As for the 1990s, crowds watched in disbelief as Brian Hugh Warner, better known as Marilyn Manson, strode on stage in a shocking combination of rouge lipstick, smudged makeup, luminous eyeliner and daring latex. The album art for his third studio album Mechanical Animals is one of the most distinctive images ever created in the world of music, featuring Manson with a distorted hybrid of male and female sexual organs.
Androgyny has never been limited to the world of popular music thanks to characters such as Manson. Metal dons Mötley Crüe and rocker Iggy Pop are two further examples that spring to mind of how sexual identity impacts upon the images of musicians of pretty much every genre. In this way, music can deconstruct our notions of sexuality and gender, disrupting some of our deepest held stereotypes.
But by the turn of the century, it seemed that the genuinely influential androgynous musical icon had become a thing of the past. The two men and two women in four piece electronic act Ladytron are at times indistinguishable, but I am hard pressed to think of many more examples of musical androgyny from the so called ‘noughties’.
Now fast forward to the present day. We are more sexually liberated than ever, but it appears that the androgynous musician is well and truly out of fashion. Lady Gaga may be the closest thing we have to a gender-bending image in the charts at the moment, in the absence of any other successor to the most noteworthy musical androgyne of late, La Roux.
I would argue that the image now in vogue with the mass produced, homogenized world of pop music is not one of gender interplay but of metrosexuality. Chart singers can look more like models than musicians at times, and this is a significant part of the general appeal of groups like One Direction.
Still, androgyny seems to be the fashion world’s latest fixation, with extensive exhibitions of gender neutral designs featuring at the recent Toronto fashion week. Perhaps it will trend again in the world of music in the same way. But, for now at least, I fear we are stuck with the rather more generic image of the modern pop star.