From Example to Encouragement: Lou Reed’s Spread of Glam to the Masses

Posted: December 25, 2012 in Editorials

Below is the second essay I composed for my “Glam Rock” class mentioned in the previous post:

Lou Reed circa the release of 'Transformer,' his most successful record.

Lou Reed circa the release of ‘Transformer,’ his most successful record.

“Culture is a notoriously ambiguous concept,” Richard Hebdige, British media and cultural theorist, writes in his Subculture and Style, laying down a general rule for the entire “Glam” subculture of the late 1960s and 1970s. (Cagle, 2) Every individual and social group can interpret the “ambiguity” of culture and style differently.  Thus, the existence of a group like the Glams, who stray from social norms and restraints and call attention to eccentricity and theatricality, becomes possible.  Throughout his essay, Hebdige constantly returns to the idea that subcultures evolve from one another, via individual interpretation.  David Bowie, a British singer-songwriter known for an extensive catalog of hits that includes “Space Oddity” and “Changes,” is often considered the godfather of Glam rock.  His “glam world,” however, circulated around dominating the spotlight as opposed to progressing and rallying the masses for a specific cause.  Van Cagle, a well-known pop music scholar discusses the evolution of glam statements, highlighting the success of Lou Reed, a New York-based musician and protégé of Bowie and Andy Warhol, in his Reconstructing Pop/Subculture: Art, Rock and Andy Warhol. Lou Reed, takes a different approach to the genre than his predecessors, revolutionizing the glam motives and ultimately publically rejecting conformity and the accepted social system. With the release of his enormously popular “Walk on the Wild Side” from his 1972 album Transformer, Reed not only avoids socially accepted behavior, but also encourages his listeners to reject the upper-class, civilized life and embrace the “wild side.”

Reed’s main goal in releasing “Walk on the Wild Side” seems to be to introduce a wider audience into the glam mindset by way of example.  The New York musician specifies that to “take a walk on the wild side” (Reed, stanza 2) one must emulate the characters he discusses in the song.  Van Cagle, delves even more deeply into the world of “Walk on the Wild Side,” which he names as “the definitive glitter rock anthem.”  He claims that song’s characters, who are indeed actual historical figures, more specifically, high-end male prostitutes, from Reed, Bowie and Warhol’s community,

…simply engage in practices that are to them quite natural–therefore, these characters find that “walking on the wild side” is just another way of describing everyday life (Cagle, 152.)


Because Reed is telling these stories of adventuring and perusing the “wild side” in such a passive way, he not only shows that these characters always live on the “wild side” but that living on the “wild side” should be socially acceptable.  Through his narration, Reed digests the glam lifestyle, explaining it concisely over the course of four minutes and thirteen seconds.  Ultimately, the singer forced these ideas upon the masses through a best selling hit single that almost every music-listener heard around the time of release.

Contrary to Bowie Reed is much more direct about forcing glam onto others. When we compare Reed to Bowie, we find that Bowie’s activities and image inspired an enormous portion of the youthful population to embrace glam. Hebdige writes,

He [Bowie] attracted a mass youth audience and set up a number of visual precedents in terms of personal appearance, (make-up, dyed hair, etc.) which created a new sexually ambiguous image for those youngsters willing and brave enough to challenge the notoriously pedestrian stereotypes…(Hebdige, 60)

Bowie influenced through example, whereas Reed affected the youth by example and by motivation.  “Rebel Rebel” from Bowie’s 1974 album Diamond Dogs, is the most “forceful” of Bowie’s work, though in the simplest terms, the song merely encourages partying, enjoying and rule breaking.  Reed, on “Walk on the Wild Side,” which was also released two years prior to “Rebel Rebel,” is much more specific and direct telling clear stories of living “wild-side walkers.”

Unlike many of 1972’s most successful mainstream hits such as “Bang a Gong (Get it On)” by T. Rex, “Witchy Woman” by the Eagles, or “Nights In White Satin” by the Moody Blues, “Take a Walk on the Wild Side,” discusses extremely controversial topics with unblemished clarity and little to no subtlety.  Lou Reed makes no effort to ease into the discussion new manners regarding sexual orientation, professional decisions and leisurely behavior..  The song’s first character, Holly, an excellent role model for wild-side walking, “plucked her eyebrows on the way/shaved her leg and then he was she.”  (Reed, stanza 1.)  A major aspect of the glam movement was a rejection and perhaps an inversion of standard, accepted and respected sexual orientation, which Reed displays here in full glory.  Many bands, regardless of their sexual orientation, that wore long hair, glitter-emblazoned, skin-tight outfits, makeup and jewelry, break the boundaries of the social-norm, publicly embracing the sexual nature of rock and roll music.  Rock and Roll, at every stage in its progression, has signified some sort of form of musical rejection.  By the 70s, rock musicians had taken to revolting against “decency” and “privacy” glorifying sexuality in their performances and music.  Even non-glam artists such as Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Pink Floyd and The Who performed in revealing pants, open shirts, and on the occasion, in costume.

In response to Reed’s mannerisms, Van Cagle states, “glitter was particularly significant because it did not attempt to deal explicitly with class issues, but instead, it attempted to subvert sexuality and gender typing.” (Cagle, 206)  Cagle’s statement is somewhat inaccurate, especially when considering Lou Reed as a person and his “Walk on the Wild Side.”  Although Reed does in fact call to attention the superficiality and superfluity of gender typing, encouraging both mild trans-sexuality and fully-fledged homosexuality.  When he discusses “gender typing” in reference to glam artists,  Cagle specifically focuses on Reed. In his discussion, the media-commentater’s use of the phrase  “subvert sexuality” is a poor choice of words.  The stereotypical high, civilized, upper-class society of the 1960s and ‘70s was private and modest about sexuality: man and woman meet, fall in love, settle down and establish a family; the man provides resources through his professional activities and the woman runs the household.  Perhaps it is fair to say that the Glams subvert that combination of society and sexualit.   However, to argue that the entire movement, one that embraces open immodesty, one that discusses sexual activity, orientation and behavior in every sense of its being, subverts sexuality without specifying further, is incorrect.

The single version of 1972's "Walk on the Wild Side"

The single version of 1972’s “Walk on the Wild Side”

Reed continues with his subversion of modest sexuality and encouragement of wild, unfiltered, eroticism through the second stanza of “Walk on the Wild Side,” though he progresses from the homosexuality of the first stanza to embracing extreme, constant and indecorous heterosexuality.  He sings, “In the backroom she was everybody’s darlin’/But she never lost her head/Even while she was giving head…” (Reed, stanza 2)  Now, with the arrival of the second stanza, Reed is still discussing sexual activity, further defying Cagle’s previously mentioned word choice, though he is merely encouraging to feel no shame in excessive lovemaking as long as one enjoy oneself and “keeps their head.”  However, Reed, being the mysterious and ambiguous man he is, adds loosely the line “He said” at the end of the stanza, making it unclear as to whether this character is in fact a man or a woman.  Perhaps Reed is being even more metaphorical, applying the same rules to every gender and every orientation.

By the third stanza, Reed’s focus jumps from merely depicting sex to discussing accepting payment for illegal activities, most likely sexual, though the song does not explicitly specify.  Reed sings, “Little Joe never once gave it away/Everybody had to pay and pay/A hustle here and a hustle there.” (Reed, stanza 3)  Ultimately, “Walk on the Wild Side” appears as almost a list of unconventional behavior and lifestyle choices, which only further exemplified by the reference of drugs, particularly “valium” (Reed, stanza 4) in the fourth verse.  Hebdige remarks that, “The “subversive implications of style” are “the status and meaning of revolt [and] the idea of style as a form of Refusal” (Hebdige, 2) and with regard to Lou Reed and his most successful single to date, the theorist is absolutely correct.  Reed’s style, his culture, his lyrics, his mannerisms and his ideas, all embody the revolt and refusal that Hebdige references that leads Van Cagle to claim that,

Walk on the Wild Side’ was considered alongside Reed’s visual style of black nail polish, black attire, and makeup…another defining feature of glitter rock.”  (Cagle, 152)

Though Cagle is not only suggesting that Reed establishes the unconventionality of glitter through one aspect of his character, he does so with his entire personality and throughout his entire career.  Thus, it would be unjust to examine merely one aspect “Walk on the Wild Side.”

Lou Reed’s ability to write shocking yet poetic lyrics attract many modern, popular artists such as Metallica on their album Lulu, and Gorillaz on the track “Some Kind of Nature,”to collaborate with him, combining their music with his songwriting abilities.  Nonetheless, “Walk on the Wild Side” is a musical statement as much as it is one of lyrical significance.   As discussed above, “Wild Side” tells less-than-pleasant tales that cause many listeners to cringe, sharing opinions of revolt, anarchy and the rejection of “the system” with the louder, angrier punk-rock groups the likes of The Stooges, The Sex Pistols and The Clash.

Though, Hebdige differentiates between Reed’s “glam” subgenre and punk, declaring,

The punk aesthetic, formulated in the widening gap between artist and audience, can be read as an attempt to expose glam rock’s implicit contradictions.  For example, the ‘working classness,’ the scruffiness and earthiness of punk ran directly counter to the arrogance, elegance and verbosity of the glam rock superstars.  (Hebdige, 63)

Lou Reed and his masterful, “Walk on the Wild Side” only resembles punk in its goals, rather than its angry style and persona.   Instead of delivering the highly controversial and provocative tales of “Wild Side-walking” with vocal and musical intensity, as one might imagine suitable, Reed sings, in almost a whisper over a quiet, echoing C-to-F chord progression.  The song  is musically very sparse for the most part, only including a soft drum , an acoustic guitar,  and two bass tracks.  Though the magnitude of the instrumentation and production does increase somewhat, Reed in essence hides the explicit content of his song from the untrained listener, perhaps an outsider unfamiliar with the glam lifestyle, while forcing his message into the subconscious.  In fact, part of the reason that “Wild Side” became a “million-selling single” (Cagle, 152) was because many administrative executives did not understand the meaning of a large portion of the lyrics, especially the phrase “to give head” and allowed the extremely explicit and inappropriate song to air uncensored on countless radio frequencies across the globe.

A modern-day Reed, shown here performing in 2004, has worked with many contemporary artists including Metallica and Gorillaz

A modern-day Reed, shown here performing in 2004, has worked with many contemporary artists including Metallica and Gorillaz

This “deception,” so to speak, progresses throughout the entire song, specifically during the saxophone solo.  The brass portion of the song on the one hand adds a jazzy feeling to “Wild Side,” a technique a lot of artists utilized all across the history of rock music.  Thus, it seems as though Reed was merely trying to sound poppy.  However, a recurring hook that indeed also adds to the overall “poppiness” of the track reads “And all the colored girls go/Doo do doo doo do doo doo do doo.” (Reed) The appearance of the saxophone, an instrument often grouped with African-American genres such as jazz, blues, soul and funk is paired with the blatant racism of the “color girls going ‘doo do doo.”   Hebdige actually delves quite deeply into the point of race boundaries in his essay arguing that reggae and punk both evolved from rock and roll music, they separated quite dramatically.  The writer continues, nonetheless with the concept that despite the fact that “Reggae and punk were audibly opposed,” (68), “Rasta rhetoric began to work its way into the repertoires of some punk groups.”  (67).  The contrary also occurred significantly, as exemplified by the Washington D.C.-based reggae-punk band Bad Brains, an all-black punk band rooted in Reggae.  Reed opened the door for such opportunities by rejecting not only sexual and musical norms, but also all societal norms. He does so openly, publically and proudly, blaring his “implications of style,” as Hebdige writes, across the FM waves for all to hear.

Reed, like Bowie and Warhol before him, perfectly embodies the glam attitude of revolution.  “Walk on the Wild Side” is everything that pop music is not, yet it still dominated the pop charts and is considered a timeless, classic hit.  Reed stresses the ambiguity that Hebdige references as an integral aspect of the development of musical and societal subgenres, and in an unprecedented and unmatched manner, urges his listeners to embrace the very same lifestyle.  Instruction on walking on the wild side could not have been made more simple and accessible than Reed made it on 1972’s Transformer.  His work inspired a sexual, moral, and overall societal revolutionary mindset in less than five minutes.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s