Written by Maxime Vers
The iconic cover for David Bowie's album Aladdin Sane is a pioneering visual that has inspired countless artists in the art of reinvention. The portrait embodies the idea of a creative rebirth — a metamorphosis in music, performance style, imagery and narrative. Over four decades later, the image continues to be appropriated by artists across all genres and styles in need of a career pivot, a new direction, with Katy Perry becoming the latest, in a long line of pop stars to invoke the fair-skinned alter-ego.
The history and origins
Deemed one of the most iconic album covers of all time, the seminal visual was shot in 1973 by famed English photographer Brian Duffy who visually interpreted 'A Lad Insane' as 'Aladdin Sane,' a fitting title for an album that explored schizophrenia, a mental illness that blurs the boundaries between reality and imagination. Most will instantly recognize the portrait, which shows a bare-chested Bowie sporting the iconic lightning bolt and a teardrop of an otherworldly substance dripping from the nook of his clavicle.
The image is also a testament to the supernatural nature of Bowie's former alter-ego Ziggy Stardust, the omnisexual alien rock star from Mars he created in 1972. Ziggy Stardust was short-lived, sacrificed on stage in July 1973 by David Bowie while performing 'Rock 'n' Roll Suicide' and replaced by Aladdin Sane, the next ephemeral incarnation of the singer.
The album cover became a visual funeral urn and vessel of his creative soul. His expressionless face and closed eyes are features reminiscent of wax or plaster death masks utilized by royalty since the Middle Ages. This historical connection lends greater context for the death, rebirth and immortality he probably hoped the image would evoke, especially given his interest in the Occult and Egyptology.
The ingenuity of the Aladdin Sane album cover spawned several iterations of itself, establishing a legacy by insidiously inserting its essence into the work of artists as diverse as Björk, Marilyn Manson, Lady Gaga and more recently Katy Perry. Ultimately, the results represent an obvious and irresistible homage, used as a way to further one's musical career.
Picking up the torch
Marilyn Manson is arguably the artist who delivered the most sophisticated homage. The cover for
Mechanical Animals introduced Omēga, an alien creature that embodied many things Aladdin Sane was: alien, androgynous, confused – sporting red-hair and heterochromatic eyes. Similar to Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Omēga's origin story is that of an alien who falls to earth and is subsequently captured by the recording industry and turned into an addictive rock star product, Omēga and The Mechanical Animals.
Bowie was famous for his rock concept albums and Manson continued the tradition with his trilogy – Mechanical Animals, Antichrist Superstar and Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death). Although Mechanical Animals has been described by Manson as "a mockery of what I was, taking a shot at myself," the satiric record was misinterpreted by many. It still debuted at number one on the Top 200 and became his biggest commercial success, serving the same purpose as Aladdin Sane. It enabled Manson to attract a new audience and present a radical change in sound and image, shedding the grimy, raw and heavy darkness of Antichrist Superstar to adorn the sophisticated yet sordid glam of Mechanical Animals.
Björk might not be a mechanical animal, but on the single cover for "Hunter" she is a digital shape-shifting creature. The Icelandic singer appears bald in the song's music video, looking immaculate against a white background, an empty space that places her at the center with no other distractions. Her 'newborn' appearance recalls rebirth as she goes through a metamorphosis. Björk alters her physical makeup and transforms into a polar bear, a 'hunter' which symbolizes Björk's Scandinavian roots and the manifestation of her activist persona. In the clip, her face can be seen mutating while synthetic, futuristic-looking blue growths progressively take over her face and body, turning her into a full-fledge cybernetic-looking polar bear. Her transformation into a hunter, establishes her as an influential figure in music, fashion and activism.
Shortly after Aladdin Sane, David Bowie explored the concept of animal transformation on the cover of Diamond Dogs, becoming a dystopian hybrid, half-man and half-dog. Even more revealing connection to Bjork's predatory imagery, is Marilyn Manson's answer to Jono Borden when asked if he was an artist or a philosopher first: "I am a philosopher first. I have to be; I am like a hunter: you have to look for your kill before you take action." It echoes the lyrics of Björk's "Hunter" and shows how hungry they both were to succeed like Bowie, to be in control of their career and own their destiny.
Taking it too far
Michael Jackson also spent most of his career reinventing his image and sound. He and Bowie crossed paths on several occasions and there is no doubt that Jackson studied his career moves and innovations closely.
Jackson reached new heights with "Thriller," a song with a music video that took transformation to the next level. And like Bowie, he was fascinated by science fiction and new technologies. The visuals above were created by Jackson in collaboration with photographer Arno Bani and were to become the official visuals for his last album Invincible. The makeup, closed eyes and futuristic look create an eerie connection with David Bowie's Aladdin Sane album cover.
Michael Jackson's essence was also perfectly captured on the artwork for the posthumous album Xscape. The cover bears some 'cosmic' resemblance with Aladdin Sane. Using a frontal bust-up crop, Jackson wears a royal garment embroidered with stars, fit for the afterlife. He is surrounded by a ring of Saturn and he appears as a being headed for the afterlife and who has left his physical body to merge with the entire universe and become a 'Starman.'
Each new Michael Jackson album came with a new concept and look that often challenged the norm, resulting in misunderstanding from the press and the music critics. In a 1996 interview with Mick Brown, Bowie explained with clarity: "'It's OK, as long as you're really in control of the image, as a painter is, for instance. But when you're using yourself as the image it's never quite as simple as that. Because aspects of your own life get mixed into the image that you're trying to project as a character, so it becomes a hybrid of reality and fantasy. And that is an extraordinary situation. Then the awareness that that's not the real you, and you're uncomfortable having to pretend that it is, makes you withdraw. And I withdrew, obviously through the use of drugs, as well, which didn't help at all."
Unlike Bowie, Michael Jackson let fantasy invade his personal life uncontrollably. Instead of a 'hunter,' he became an easy prey for the tabloids. While Bowie retired Ziggy Stardust and introduced Aladdin Sane fast enough to avoid turning into something he called 'cartoony,' Michael Jackson never made the distinction and became that ill-fated character, his life turning into an unbearable caricature.
Other artists have since gone too far in taking inspiration from Bowie and Aladdin Sane. Lady Gaga took her extravagant personas and eccentric outfits to the extreme while being overworked by her labels who believed she had reached indestructible pop dominance. "At the end of 2014, my stylist asked, 'Do you even want to be a pop star anymore?'" Lady Gaga told Billboard Magazine. "I looked at him and I go, 'You know, if I could just stop this train right now, today, I would. I just can't. I need to get off now because I'm going to die.'"
The self-proclaimed Bowie superfan had the portrait of Aladdin Sane tattooed on her side two days before performing a David Bowie tribute at the 2016 Grammy Awards. She told Mashable: "His influence is also a magic trick. People don't even realize how much they're influenced by him until they really take a closer look. He's everywhere." Before Lady Gaga, David Bowie was the original shape shifter, fashion shocker and influencer. Talking about her tribute, Lady Gaga summarized really well her connection with the Starman: "In this performance, it is important for me to continue to build upon something that he was truly the first person to do. The first person to bridge music, fashion, and technology. These things were at a cultural crossing in Bowie."
But like him, Lady Gaga had to stop her fabricated personas in order to keep her sanity and save herself. She told The London Times Culture magazine: "All the outfits, fashion and art pieces over the years made sense to me. They didn't make sense to other people." The 'Mother Monster' persona was retired to give way to Joanne, a name taken from Lady Gaga's real name: Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta.
The recently unveiled artwork for Katy Perry's new album Witness and its tour promotional image are both heavily influenced by the Aladdin Sane cover: naked shoulders, white pale skin and eyes shut. Although Perry's hair aren't red like Bowie's, the peroxide blond is an equally bold color and the hairstyle is very similar. After a failed comeback, the singer is in need of a change, confused and struggling with the Katy Perry persona she has been assuming for years. In a recent video announcement on Twitter, Katy Perry looked lost while proclaiming: "Can you see me? I mean I know you can see me, but can you really see me? My name is Katherine Hudson. I'm Katie Perry and I'm not just one thing."
The ultimate legacy
Aladdin Sane was about being consumed by an imaginary persona and by fame, together with the repercussion it has on an individual's soul. David Bowie, Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga all flirted with self-destruction and even death. Shaping a new persona or hiding behind an eccentric alter-ego is a strategy that can act as a short-term protective measure and help bring commercial success, but overtime it can also result in an artist loosing their identity and facing mixed reactions and misunderstanding from their fan base and from critics, with potential damage to their long term career.
After spending a lifetime collecting personalities and ideas, David Bowie has become the father of a lineage of cultural hunters obsessed with the idea of re-invention, going through the next transformation in order to be more powerful, gain more influence and success. David Bowie has left our physical world forever, but a part of him has attained immortality and will remain alive forever, inspiring new generations of artists to embrace their extravagant alien-self and to break the rules without fear.