The Roots of Glam Rock
The roots of glam rock began long before the 1970s onslaught of David Bowie, Mark Bolan, Mott the Hoople, and Cockney rebel. Black performers like Little Richard set the tone for glam rock by wearing makeup, wild clothes and glam rock fashions way ahead of the times. When a performer takes on a facade or disguise of some kind, it quite naturally facilitates the ability to become someone else- to assimilate a personality that could even be the opposite of what that individual normally is, this is glam rock. Sometimes the most extrovert performers can be the most introvert people off-stage. A dramatic transformation in appearance then, along with the attention of an audience and the obvious empowerment of being on-stage or on-camera, can bring about a transformation of personality.
If the audience is receptive to what they see and like what they see, the performer can become a mirror in which they see themselves reflected or ‘would like’ to see themselves reflected. Someone not afraid to express their individuality- someone brave enough to break with convention. Certain members of that audience, whether at a concert, a movie theater or a fashion show, may be influenced to imitate what they have seen. They might dye their hair, they might start to wear eye-liner, they might start to wear strange clothes. They soon discover that they feel somehow ‘different’. The ‘facade’ is no longer a facade. It isn’t fake. It is simply a facet of themselves which, up to that point, had remained undiscovered.
This process of self-exploration and even self-reinvention forms the essence of ‘Glam rock‘ whether expressed through Music, Film, Fashion, or indeed any form of media. If one accepts that how a person acts is affected by how they feel inside which, in turn, is affected by how they look, then the potential power of appearance can be appreciated: the power to bring about a metamorphosis which, once complete, is a true extension and expression of the self. Accomplished actors, of course, do this on a regular basis but they do it as dictated by a pre-determined character and written script. There are some individuals who do it as a lifestyle, who have never been on a stage in their lives. Such a lifestyle then, one could define as ‘Glam rock‘. The musician, as performer, has considerably more freedom than the actor to explore the extremes of costume and onstage behavior. Many choose not to utilize this freedom- which is fine. For some spectators though, it can be a disappointing experience to attend a gig, expecting some form of visual entertainment, only to be confronted by a bunch of losers in t-shirts, aka ‘the band’. Maybe indie-complaint-rock-shoe-gazers are just downright lazy. Or maybe they are making a deliberately ‘anti-Glam’ statement by adopting such a stage persona (or lack of it).
The Elizabethan masque ball is perhaps one of the earliest examples of Glam rock being employed by a social group for the purposes of entertainment. For the duration of an evening, the use of a hand-held mask allowed individuals to interact in a manner quite different from the norm. The experience of talking to a mask can be disconcerting and one realizes how important the face is as a means of expression: the eyes, the mouth, the occasional twitch or sideways glance which can communicate so much. The absence of any such indicators can be a daunting handicap- but also a potential asset for the purposes of concealment. Whether they realized it or not, the Elizabethans were exploring the possibilities of temporary self-reinvention, albeit in a rather primitive fashion. The ever-popular fancy-dress party presents a similar opportunity- though one that few would naturally choose to exploit.
Before Music and Film became the influential forms of media that they are today, it was the Theatre that offered performers an opportunity to test the limits of self-expression on their public. More specifically, it was the advent of ‘Vaudeville’ in Canada and the US in the late 19th Century which presented a far more flexible vehicle compared to conventional Theatre. As an entertainment format, it soon spread to Europe where it became as widely popular as in North America. A typical Vaudeville show would feature a variety of performers, including dancers, musicians, various circus acts, magicians, female/male impersonators- all of whom would perform a series of ‘skits’ or ‘sketches’. Under the veil of Comedy, it was perfectly acceptable, even back then, to play around with the borders of sexuality. A man could dress up as a woman as long as it was ‘funny’. The idea of a man wearing women’s clothes off-stage, as a part of his daily life, of course, would have been unthinkable. But in a Vaudeville show, it was automatically accepted as part of the entertainment.
It was during this phase of Vaudeville that performers started to use extreme stage make-up purely ‘for effect’. Theatrical make-up called ‘Blackface’ (the term is self-explanatory) became commonplace both in Vaudeville and so-called ‘Minstrel Shows’. Whilst blatantly racist and unpalatable in modern times, it became a means of popularizing (and exploiting) Afro-American culture. It seems unthinkable to us now, that a white man presenting himself as black could be in any way entertaining. But it was just another mask, or even ‘masque’ in the Elizabethan sense- a means of allowing the wearer to be ‘someone else’ for the duration of a performance.
‘Blackface’ was famously used by the singer Al Jolson throughout the 1920s and 30s, along with a flamboyant, melodramatic stage style. His performances were legendary and earned him massive popularity in the US. In his case, however, he was not attempting to lampoon or ridicule black American culture- quite the contrary. Jolson, a white Jewish immigrant, was a champion of black music and played a significant role in preparing white audiences for black performers later on, such as Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Fats Waller. In no way did he owe his success to the use of Blackface- he would have been just as successful without it. He deliberately used it as a political/cultural tool- to get his white audiences used to seeing a ‘black face’ on the stage. In this way, he used the concept of Glam (as defined earlier) to bring about social change and it was his exceptional ability to woo and win over any audience that enabled him to pull this off. When one considers that he was operating in an anti-Semitic environment as well as an anti-Black one, his achievement is nothing short of remarkable. In terms of status and popularity, he was the first ‘rock star’ before ‘rock’ was even thought of and it has been said that he was to jazz and blues what Elvis Presley was to rock ‘n roll. This is obviously true in terms of Jolson’s effect upon the popularization of black American music but the Zeitgeist of the 1950s enabled not just Elvis Presley, but also certain Hollywood movie stars to do something Al Jolson could never have done in his time: to challenge the public’s perception of male sexuality. The point is long before there was a name for glamorous music, fashions, stars there was always a bit of glam rock.