The dystopian glam impact of David Bowie's "Diamond Dogs" on artists from Lady Gaga to St. Vincent

Revisiting the power the 1974 album and Halloween Jack character as a challenge to gender norms and societal decay

Published May 23, 2024 1:30PM (EDT)

David Bowie (wearing an eyepatch) performs 'Rebel Rebel' on the TV show TopPop on 7th February 1974 in Hilversum, Netherlands. (Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns/Getty Images)
David Bowie (wearing an eyepatch) performs 'Rebel Rebel' on the TV show TopPop on 7th February 1974 in Hilversum, Netherlands. (Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns/Getty Images)

This May, we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of David Bowie's classic album "Diamond Dogs." It’s an opportune moment to revisit the enduring legacy and cultural impact of this iconic work from 1974, as it draws on decadent themes of dystopia and gender fluidity that easily resonate in our modern world. Bowie's dark vision of a decaying urban landscape fits right in with contemporary concerns about environmental degradation, social inequality and political unrest. As we reflect on the lasting influence of "Diamond Dogs" half a century later, it becomes evident that Bowie’s last gasp of glam is not simply a relic of the past, but a dynamic influence and enduring lens that continues to shape current culture. Glam today should ultimately be seen as kind of undead, persisting and evolving in unexpected and innovative ways, much like the timeless allure of Bowie himself.

Glam rock, epitomized by extravagant theatrics and provocative themes, found its quintessential expression in this album. Released amid the decline of glam rock's popularity in the mid-1970s, "Diamond Dogs" represented a departure as Bowie ventured into what he called his “plastic soul” era with the "Young Americans" album, drawing from soul, funk and avant-garde experimentation. The waning of glam rock during this period can be attributed to various factors, including its co-option by the mainstream music industry and the emergence of new musical trends like punk rock and disco, which offered contrasting expressions of rebellion and flamboyance.

A theatrical extravagance

Glam today should ultimately be seen as kind of undead, persisting and evolving in unexpected and innovative ways, much like the timeless allure of Bowie himself.

Drawing on the work of English philosopher Simon Critchley, we can analyze “Diamond Dogs” according to three key criteria defining its glam sensibility. The first of these is that glam rock is renowned for its theatricality and extravagant performance style, blurring lines between music, art and theater. Bowie, a master of reinvention, embraced this aspect on “Diamond Dogs,” transforming into the post-apocalyptic prophet Halloween Jack within a dystopian urban landscape, visually encapsulating his commitment to over-the-top performance. Critchley emphasizes Bowie's theatricality as central to his artistic identity in his book "Bowie" (OR Books, 2016). While no music videos were officially released for "Diamond Dogs," Bowie incorporated elements of his Halloween Jack persona into live performances and promotional material, including cover art and promo photos where he appears as a half-man and half-dog hybrid, reinforcing his constant attention to visual storytelling.

Belgian artist Guy Peellaert's cover artwork cemented Jack's place in the pantheon of Bowie's iconic personas. Following Bowie's transformation into the enigmatic half-man, half-dog character crafted for this album and tour, audiences found themselves immersed in a world of urban decay and apocalyptic visions. Inspired by George Orwell's novel "1984" and Bowie's own uncertainty about the direction of his career, Halloween Jack was meant as a symbol of rebellion and survival in the midst of societal collapse. He sported shaved eyebrows and a red mullet haircut just like Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane did. Jack prowled the streets of Hunger City, a fictional dystopian landscape brought to life through Bowie's vivid storytelling. The album's title track introduces Halloween Jack as a "real cool cat" ruling over the diamond dogs, a motley crew navigating the urban wasteland. As the album unfolds, listeners are drawn deeper into Jack's world, confronting themes of societal collapse and moral decay that resonate with contemporary audiences. Through Halloween Jack, Bowie invites us to explore the darker corners of human existence and to confront the harsh realities of a world on the brink of implosion. 

A musician deeply indebted to Bowie's groundbreaking work on "Diamond Dogs" is the flamboyant and genre-defying Lady Gaga. Her outrageous performances, elaborate costumes, and boundary-pushing music videos echo the glam rock era's emphasis on spectacle and extravagance. Tracks like "Bad Romance" exude otherworldly glamour, embodying fearless experimentation akin to Bowie's artistic vision. Gaga explores themes of love, desire and power within a dark and decadent fantasy world with lyrics like, "I want your love and I want your revenge / You and me could write a bad romance," evoking a sense of intrigue and danger. The song's pulsating beat, haunting melody, and operatic vocal delivery create grandeur and theatricality, echoing Bowie's boundary-pushing approach in "Diamond Dogs."

Gaga's admiration for Bowie is evident not only in her music but also in a permanent homage she bears on her skin. In February 2016, she inked Bowie's iconic lightning bolt from the “Aladdin Sane” album cover onto her ribcage before her tribute performance at the Grammy Awards, symbolizing her profound respect for his fearless innovation. Gaga’s mesmerizing medley of Bowie’s songs showcased her own unique spin on his music while honoring his legacy. Bowie held Gaga in similarly high regard, recognizing her instinct for pushing boundaries in music and performance. 

Besides her sound, we all remember the meat dress. Gaga's looks definitely incorporate bold fashion choices and an avant-garde aesthetic that further enhance her otherworldly glamour through the surreal and fantastical, and she is a terrific example of how the first glam rock criteria of defiance then paves the way for the second criteria of a glam lens: gender fluidity and glamorous fashion.

Androgyny and gender fluidity

In "Performing Glam Rock: Gender and Theatricality in Popular Music” (University of Michigan Press, 2006), Philip Auslander, a Performance Studies professor, explores how glam rock challenged traditional gender norms. Auslander argues that glam rock's theatrical elements and gender-bending imagery allowed artists like Bowie to blur the lines between performance and identity. By adopting androgynous personas and extravagant costumes, glam rockers destabilized gender binaries and societal expectations. Auslander contends that glam rock's performative nature was not just superficial but a way to explore complex issues of identity and power, as seen in Bowie's gender play and defiance of categorization.

Halloween Jack was meant as a symbol of rebellion and survival in the midst of societal collapse.

Bowie, an icon of gender-bending or gender fluidity, used his own image to critique the boundaries between masculine and feminine aesthetics, inspiring generations of artists to explore their own identities. Critchley discusses Bowie's exploration of gender in "Bowie," noting how his personas allowed him to transcend societal expectations and conventions. On "Diamond Dogs," Bowie uses the androgynous alter ego of Halloween Jack to embody a more fluid gender presentation, clad as he was in extravagant costumes and makeup that defied categorization. The infectious guitar riff and defiant lyrics of “Rebel Rebel” reinforced these visuals, celebrating nonconformity and self-expression in ways that further solidified the album's status as a glam rock landmark.

The opening lines of "Rebel Rebel" immediately set a tone of individuality and defiance: "You've got your mother in a whirl / She's not sure if you're a boy or a girl.” These lyrics challenge traditional gender norms and expectations, embracing ambiguity and fluidity as symbols of liberation and self-expression. Bowie's playful exploration of identity and gender reflects the androgynous aesthetic that was central to glam rock as a cultural movement. As the song progresses, Bowie's lyrics continue to exude this sense of rebellion, encouraging listeners to embrace their uniqueness and reject societal norms: "Hot tramp, I love you so!" This celebrates individuality and self-confidence, rejecting faked conformity in favor of authentic self-expression. By embracing the "hot tramp" persona, Bowie invited listeners to revel in their own eccentricities and lean into the freedom to be whoever they wanted to be.

This freedom goes well beyond the realm of music on stage to the red carpet and other runways. "Diamond Dogs" has an influence that can be seen perhaps most evidently in contemporary fashion and visual culture. Designers like Marc Jacobs and Alexander McQueen draw inspiration from Bowie's avant-garde style, incorporating elements of glam rock into their collections. Jacobs paid homage to Bowie in his Fall/Winter 2016 collection with metallic fabrics and bold patterns, collaborating with Bowie's estate for limited-edition T-shirts featuring iconic images. Similarly, McQueen's Spring/Summer 2010 collection, "Plato's Atlantis," evoked Bowie personas through futuristic designs with geometric shapes and theatrical proportions. Alessandro Michele of Gucci, Vivienne Westwood, and Hedi Slimane of Saint Laurent also find inspiration in Bowie's aesthetic, infusing their collections with bold patterns and exaggerated silhouettes reminiscent of Bowie's iconic looks. Westwood and Slimane especially tend to embrace a disheveled black and red pirate look that echoes Halloween Jack, further contributing to a broader cultural shift towards greater acceptance and visibility for non-normative gender expressions.

These examples demonstrate how Bowie's influence extends beyond the realm of music, shaping contemporary fashion and visual culture. His impact on the world of fashion remains profound, serving as a constant source of inspiration for designers seeking to innovate and challenge conventions. Auslander's book highlights the cultural significance of glam rock, especially its impact on LGBTQ+ communities and its role in shaping broader conversations about gender and sexuality. He argues that Bowie’s glam looks conveyed hope through platforms for marginalized voices, contributing to a cultural shift towards greater acceptance and visibility of non-normative gender expressions.

Embracing dystopia

This brings us to the third criteria of the glam rock lens, which requires themes that provoke or subvert normativity, especially by portraying its dark underbelly. "Diamond Dogs" offers a dark and dystopian vision of a post-apocalyptic world rife with decay and decadence. Critchley highlights Bowie's willingness to delve into existential dread and societal decay. Songs like "We Are the Dead" and "Sweet Thing" reflect Bowie's fascination with dystopian imagery, painting a vividly dark picture of a failed society on the brink of implosion.

In "We Are the Dead," Bowie's lyrics evoke despair and resignation. The lines "For we’re breaking in the new boys, deceive your next of kin / For you’re dancing where the dogs decay, defecating ecstasy / You’re just an ally of the leecher," reflect a feeling of detachment and disillusionment as individuals seek solace in the bizarre escapism of doing unto the next generation those indoctrinations that left their world in turmoil in the first place. His haunting refrain of “we are the dead” underscores the pervasive sense of despair and disillusionment that permeates the album, serving as a stark reminder of the consequences of societal decay. Similarly, "Sweet Thing" offers a haunting portrayal of societal collapse and moral decay, with Bowie crooning about longing and desperation as young people grapple with the chaos and uncertainty of the world around them: "Cause hope, boys / Is a cheap thing, cheap thing // Is it nice in your snowstorm."

One striking example of the enduring legacy of the darkness of "Diamond Dogs" is found in the eclectic and boundary-pushing music of St. Vincent, also known as Annie Clark, who channels the spirit of Bowie's post-apocalyptic prophet, Halloween Jack. Like Bowie and Gaga, St. Vincent blurs the boundaries between art and music, creating a multi-dimensional and gender-fluid experience that transcends traditional classifications. But it’s the oddity and decay present in songs like "Digital Witness" and "Birth in Reverse" that most truly showcase her penchant for experimental sounds and provocative themes that provide a haunting echo of "Diamond Dogs."

St. Vincent openly acknowledges David Bowie as a profound influence on her music and artistic identity.

In "Digital Witness," St. Vincent critiques modern society's obsession with technology and surveillance culture. The lyrics "People turn the TV on / It looks just like a window" highlight the pervasive influence of media and technology on our lives, while the repeated refrain "Digital witness, what's the point of even sleeping?" questions the constant surveillance and scrutiny that individuals face in the digital age. Musically, the song features a blend of electronic beats, angular guitar riffs, and catchy melodies, creating a sound that is both futuristic and unsettling. Similarly, "Birth in Reverse" explores themes of existential dread and societal decay. The lyrics "Oh what an ordinary day / Take out the garbage, masturbate" juxtapose mundane daily routines with existential angst, capturing the sense of disillusionment and ennui that pervades modern life. Musically, the song features a driving bassline, jagged guitar riffs and dissonant synths, creating a sense of tension and unease. St. Vincent's vocal delivery conveys a sense of urgency and desperation that mirrors the dystopian imagery of "Diamond Dogs."

St. Vincent openly acknowledges David Bowie as a profound influence on her music and artistic identity. She attributes much of her eclectic blend of genres to Bowie's fearless experimentation and continual reinvention throughout his career. Clark has often spoken of Bowie's transformative impact on her as a young artist, describing his ability to expand creative horizons and inspire her to push the boundaries of her own artistry. While there might not be direct documented interactions between the two, Bowie's legacy looms large in St. Vincent's work, evident in her willingness to defy expectations and challenge industry norms. Bowie, known for his appreciation of emerging talent, would surely have admired St. Vincent's boundary-pushing approach to music and performance. Their connection as kindred spirits in the realm of artistic innovation and reinvention is palpable, with St. Vincent emerging as a fitting inheritor of Bowie's legacy, carrying forward his spirit of creativity and fearless expression of challenging times.

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Bowie's "Diamond Dogs" doesn't just confront us with uncomfortable truths – it plunges us into a world teetering on the brink of collapse, where societal norms crumble beneath the weight of decay and decadence. In an era marked by environmental degradation, political unrest and social inequality, Bowie's album becomes more than just a commentary. It's a visceral experience that forces us to confront the complexities of our modern world. As we navigate our present-day uncertainties, Bowie's call to embrace theatricality and gender fluidity takes on a new urgency, drawing us into a world where darkness and danger really do lurk around every corner. The album ensures that Bowie's spirit lives on, casting a long shadow over contemporary music and culture, beckoning us to embrace the power and the darkness of glam. In the reflection of Bowie's impact, there's the obvious lingering question: What uncharted realms will tomorrow's creatives traverse, fueled by the primal energy of "Diamond Dogs"?


By Megan Volpert

Megan Volpert has written or edited more than a dozen books, including "Boss Broad," which won a Georgia Author of the Year Award. Her latest is "Straight Into Darkness: Tom Petty as Rock Mystic" (University of Georgia Press, 2022). She is an assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies at Kennesaw State University and a fellow at the American Institute for Philosophical and Cultural Thought.

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Commentary David Bowie Diamond Dogs Gender Gender Fluid Glam Rock Halloween Jack Music