The Rolling Stones invented glam rock. David Bowie didn’t do it. Marc Bolan didn’t do it. The Stones did it. If you have any argument, just watch the video. It was filmed in 1968, when those other two were still curly-haired hippies going nowhere fast. Mick Jagger was the first major rock star to be provocatively androgynous, everyone else who did it was copying him. He was the first to wear makeup and feminine clothes. All together The Stones pushed the boundaries of permissible self-expression harder and faster than anyone else. They weren’t the first guys to have long hair, but theirs was the longest, mussiest and most fetching. They wore exotic, psychedelic clothes more flamboyantly than anyone else. They relished the shock and confusion they caused in polite society. Jagger was a natural boundary pusher; he just had the face and body for it. The other guys dressed wild too, but nobody could question their masculinity. With Jagger it was another story. Mick Jagger is, besides David Bowie, the most naturally androgynous person I know of, and he’s been smart to make it a big part of his persona. The idea of a gender binary is for the most part an invention of society, but nevertheless, most people do place themselves firmly on one end or the other, and are fine that way. There really aren’t that many people who manage to exude equal parts masculinity and femininity. (Not talking about personal identity here, just the way a person in perceived from the outside.) I really think that Mick Jagger deserves a lot more credit for being a figurehead of non-binary self-expression. Being in a band known for aggressively macho sounding hit songs shields him from the mainstream-alienating stigma associated with more overtly campy performers. In plain English, Jagger sings enough vaguely sexist odes to pussy that Joe Truckdriver doesn’t find him too gay. (There’s something about loud guitars that’s just associated with manly heterosexual manhood – how else do you think Freddie Mercury managed to keep his orientation a secret for so long?) Also, Jagger – an anecdotally known bisexual – never made the mistake David Bowie made. He never admitted it in public, thus escaping the virulent homophobia that hobbled Bowie’s stateside success. Still, upon closer inspection, he was all along very purposefully fucking around with the generally accepted forms of gender expression. The whole intriguing persona of Mick Jagger hinges on the combination of effeminate and masculine traits. He’s always had a feminine appearance, with his lips and pretty blue eyes, but he could’ve chosen not to play it up, and he’s done nothing but play it up. I suspect the motivation for that is primarily narcissism. You have to be an attention whore to become a rock star of that caliber, and vanity plays no small part. Excessive vanity has been well documented as a primary aspect of Jagger’s personality, so there’s no going out on a limb with that. In general, defining one’s identity in terms of appearance is an almost exclusively female trait. A woman’s worth has always been measured first and foremost in beauty, so, through no fault of their own, most women’s identities are bound to their looks. Men, on the other hand, seem to be only vaguely aware of what they look like, and define themselves by achievement, character, or interests. It’s a very vain man indeed who places his appearance as a primary measure of self-worth. So, vanity in itself is considered to be effeminate. Thus, for a man to present himself as a hyper-sexualized, openly vain object of desire is decidedly non-gender normative behavior. The desire to be desired is a female trait. The performance style of Mick Jagger is absolutely self-objectifying, in the sense that it is an invitation of desire (as well as an expression of it.) He looks like a girl, he dances like a girl, he presents himself as an object of lust, frequently in a literal strip-tease. Which is all how he gets away, in my book, with some otherwise pretty objectionable lyrical content. It’s the contrast between the stereotypical language of rock’n’roll, which speaks to male desire, and the appropriated elements of female eroticism, which invite the desires of both sexes. (The Stones have been repeat offenders in terms of sexist lyrics, but a larger number of their songs are in fact quite the opposite.) It’s also worth noting that a lot the above is done very tongue-in-cheek. The Stones are not generally associated with camp culture, but Mick Jagger is fluent in it. The various interesting combinations of masculinity and femininity, aggression and vulnerability, seriousness and camp and romance and lust would become almost mainstream (those things still aren’t quite there yet in 2013) with the advent of glam. However, glam soon deteriorated into pastiche thanks to hacks like Gary Glitter, as only two or three people actually did it well or had anything to say. We can probably dismiss the label ‘glam rock’ altogether and focus on the impact of those few people who were genuinely trying to explore the boundaries that society had placed on sexual expression. David Bowie, obviously. Marc Bolan for kicking it into gear and making it commercially viable (although he was more interested in his own vanity than any ideas about affecting society.) Freddie Mercury and Elton John, for whom the exploration of societal boundaries meant a journey out of the closet, and consequently, the stakes were much higher. A lot of other people wore glitter in the seventies (hell, even Bob Dylan wore eyeliner in the seventies) but they all fall to the wayside. Mick Jagger took to the glam movement like a fish to water – he’d been wearing glitter and eyeliner all along. I think it’s no coincidence that Jagger and Bowie spent a part of the seventies fused at the hip (and allegedly in each other’s beds.) They’re kindred spirits, and I think there’s no doubt that the omnivorous pansexual persona that Bowie scandalized the world with was explicitly based on Mick Jagger’s.
(Photo by Michael Cooper)
*On a side note; in my admittedly unscientific research, I’ve found that *mainstream* Stones fans strongly favor the staunchly heterosexual Keith Richards as their favorite, while fans who are queer or otherwise anti-binary prefer Mick Jagger. Plainly, Jagger does make Joe Truckdriver uncomfortable, but the collective masculinity of the other Stones is just enough to make up for it.