Hang on to yourself: Bowie, Burke, and the rhetoric of stage persona
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This study uses Kenneth Burke’s concepts and theories to examine the rhetorical implications of David Bowie’s use of the stage persona Ziggy Stardust in order to better understand how stage personae affect performers and their audiences. Employing Burke’s dramatistic pentad as a theoretical framework, I explore the scene, act, agent, agency, and purpose of the creation of the Ziggy Stardust character and consider how this persona influenced fans’ identification with Ziggy and with Bowie himself. Bowie created the Ziggy persona by drastically altering his physical appearance, changing his musical style, and combining elements of disparate influences like Japanese kabuki theater, pop art, and queer culture. By performing as the androgynous Ziggy Stardust both on and off stage, Bowie forced audiences to reassess their assumptions about identity and sexuality and challenged the pervasiveness of the white, heterosexual male perspective in rock music. However, his use of the Ziggy persona had a negative psychological effect on Bowie, who was haunted by a family history of schizophrenia, depression, and suicide. This ultimately led him to discard the Ziggy persona before it consumed him. Even after his “retirement,” Ziggy Stardust had a lasting effect on Bowie’s fans. Using Kenneth Burke’s three forms of identification, this study explores how the Ziggy persona led audiences to identify strongly with him and therefore with Bowie. The persona’s extraterrestrial origins served as a metaphor for alienation, which British youth struggled with as the counterculture of the 1960s dissipated; Burke would call this identification by sympathy. Ziggy’s androgyny and sexual ambiguity reflected a rejection of cultural norms that Bowie and his fans saw as outdated and oppressive; Burke would call this identification by antithesis. The Ziggy persona also inspired fans to recreate themselves in his image, but more importantly Ziggy taught them that identity is malleable and that being different can have its advantages; Burke would call this identification by inaccuracy. The study concludes by examining the nuances of terms like identity, persona, and ethos, calling for further research into disambiguating these terms and exploring their interrelationship, especially as it relates to composition pedagogy.