“All the Young Dudes,” glam rock’s rallying cry, turned 40 last year. David Bowie wrote it, but Mott the Hoople owned it: their version was, and will ever remain, glam’s anthem, a hymn of exuberant disenchantment that also happens to be one of rock’s all-time irresistible sing-alongs.
Bowie, glam, and “All the Young Dudes” are inseparable in the public mind, summoning memories of a subculture dismissed as apolitical escapism, a glitter bomb of fashion and attitude that briefly relieved the malaise of the '70s.
Now, cultural critic Mark Dery gives the movement its due in an 8,000-word exploration of glam as rebellion through style, published as a Kindle e-book (and Boing Boing's first published e-book): All the Young Dudes: Why Glam Matters. As polymorphously perverse as the subculture it explores, “All the Young Dudes: Why Glam Matters” is equal parts fan letter, visual-culture criticism, queer theory, and true confession.
In bravura style, Dery teases out lines of connection between glam, the socioeconomic backdrop of the '70s, Oscar Wilde as a late-Victorian Ziggy Stardust, the etymology and queer subtext of the slang term “dude,” the associative links between the '20s-style cover of the Mott album on which “Dudes” appeared and the coded homoeroticism of the '20s magazine illustrator J.C. Leyendecker (considered in the context of the 1970s fad for all things 1920s), and Dery’s own memories of growing up glam in '70s San Diego, where coming out as a Bowie fan — even for straight kids — was an invitation to bullying.
Glam emboldened kids in America and England to dream of a world beyond suburbia’s oppressive notions of normalcy, Dery argues, a world conjured up in pop songs full of Wildean irony and Aestheticism and jaw-dropping fashion statements to match. More important, glam drew inspiration from feminism and gay liberation to articulate a radical critique of mainstream manhood—a pomosexual vision of masculinity whose promise remains only partly fulfilled, even now.
Buy All the Young Dudes: Why Glam Rock Matters, by Mark Dery
All the Young Dudes
(Excerpt: 730 words)
Reviewing Mott the Hoople’s All the Young Dudes for The San Diego Door, 15-year-old Cameron Crowe had no doubt that the title track, written by Bowie, was “a very English, very metal, very risqué ode to homosexual rape. ‘I’ve been wanting to do this for years,’ admits the aggressor…”
And what, exactly, was a young dude? In the ‘70s Southern California of my adolescence, “dude” was the universal form of address among teenaged males. A verbal virus spread by the surfer scene, “dude” was a jocular hi-sign, the verbal fist bump of male bonding. Variously inflected, it could also be a remonstration (dude!), a quizzical exclamation (dude?!), or a backslap of bong-loaded bonhomie (duuuuude, underscored with a Cheshire-cat grin). With the right verbal spin, the term could even signify Jeff Spicoli’s idea of satori, a kind of Tao of Whoahhh—the existential weightlessness common to surfers, stoners, and slackers, a state of mind incarnated by Jeff Bridges as The Dude in The Big Lebowski. But whatever else it was, “dude” was an expression of Dude-ism—straight guy-ness, distilled down to its bro-mantic, brewski-chugging, perpetually adolescent essence.
It’s doubtful Bowie spoke fluent Dude, in 1972. More likely, he reached for the word because of its historical associations with dandies and other Dedicated Followers of Fashion—the sort of “handsome young man, curled, well-dressed, pomaded, painted and powdered” (Edmond de Goncourt, on one of Proust’s friends) whose flamboyance or excessive fastidiousness in dress struck a note of unmanly vanity, even effeminacy.
As early as 1897, the New English Dictionary (as the O.E.D. was then known) defined “dude” as “a factitious slang term which came into vogue in New York about the beginning of 1883, in connection with the ‘aesthetic’ craze of the day”—“aesthetic” in the sense of the Aesthetic movement whose public face, Oscar Wilde, was a Late-Victorian Ziggy.
Revealingly, the American Century Dictionary, published in 1889, kicked the blame for dude-ism back across the pond, tracing the word’s origins to London, “where it first became known in general colloquial and newspaper use at the time of the so-called ‘esthetic’ movement in dress and manners, in 1882-83.”
Seth Lerer argues compellingly, in Inventing English: The Portable History of the Language, that there’s a cultural logic to the Century’s etymological payback:
The dude is some undefinable other. The lexicographer, whether British or American, refuses to claim ownership or origin. […] In these entries, both the Century and the N.E.D. offer social criticism through philology. Their extended definitions center on the theater of dudedom: the logic of costume and affectation.
Undefinable others of bent gender and blurred sexuality, the Wilde boys of 1883 were the original dudes, precursors of the dissolute, pill-popping mods in Bowie’s 1966 song “The London Boys” (“A London boy, oh a London boy/ Your flashy clothes are your pride and joy”), the glitter kids in “All the Young Dudes, “ and maybe the “handsome young men” on the cover of the Mott album, smartly turned out in their upscale tailoring.