What is Glam Rock?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Glam rock was a form of rock music most popular from 1971-1973. The genre was characterized by male performers who wore makeup and feminine style clothing while performing rock music. Some of the bands of this early time had extremely elaborate stage shows, often emphasizing futuristic themes. On of the earliest and best known glam rockers was David Bowie, who blurred gender lines with his heavily made up face and the personas he adopted during concerts, and Marc Bolan of T-Rex. Other early glam rockers include the bands Queen, Sweet, the New York Dolls, and Slade and the artist Elton John.

Liberace was a forerunner to glam rockers.
Liberace was a forerunner to glam rockers.

Deliberate gender confusion was not exactly new to music. Liberace was an intensely popular pop artist whose fancy dress in the 1950s did not detract from his success. Other rock-n-roll artists like Little Richard performed in heavy makeup and eyeliner. Glam rock differentiates from this form by mixing the rock of the 1960s with the "glam" look.

David Bowie, an English songwriter, began his musical career in the 1970s with the glam rock movement.
David Bowie, an English songwriter, began his musical career in the 1970s with the glam rock movement.

Artists of early period glam rock were not only known for their elaborate costumes and references to sexuality but also frequently for taking on themes, and not cautionary tales, about drug use. When AIDS first achieved public notice in the mid 1980s, some glam stars became cautionary tales. One of the greatest losses to the rock world was Freddie Mercury, who died of AIDS in 1991. Promiscuity, characteristic of many 1970s and 1980s rock stars, made many rock artists easy targets for the HIV virus.

Though glam rock often implied homosexuality, most glam stars were not homosexual. A few emerged later claiming bisexuality, but only a handful actually were gay, or were openly gay. Instead makeup and shiny jumpsuits were meant to create public notice and provide shock factor. No one took this further than Alice Cooper, who began to incorporate not only the glam fashion into rock but also evolved graphically violent stage shows, helping to refine what came to be called shock rock. Another American greatly influenced by the mostly British glam rock artists was Iggy Pop, who blended heavy metal, some would say almost early punk music, with glam rock styles.

In America, glam rock was a big influence on one of the best known glam metal bands, Kiss, which formed at the end of the 1970s. Kiss stage shows were performed in heavy makeup, featured some gender bending clothing, and especially worked on providing shows focused on horror themes. Kiss remained glam though focus was less on science fiction and more on horror.

Alice Cooper is another example of an artist continuing to provide extremely elaborate stage shows. Other glam rockers dropped the sexual ambiguity but remained popular. Queen, Elton John, and David Bowie all emerged from the movement, retaining their popularity, but choosing costuming that was less androgynous.

Glam rock influenced later movements in rock. The New Romance movement, part of the new wave movement in the 1980s, returned to glam roots, though the music itself was very different. New Romance artists like Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Ultravox, and Adam and the Ants wore frilly blouses and a great deal of makeup.

The new wave artist Boy George was probably the most glam, specifically transvestite in appearance. Newer bands continue to push the gender envelope. These include artists like Marilyn Manson. Some artists of the grunge movement performed in drag, but emphasis was less on gender shifts than on the amusement of seeing fully bearded men in dresses and wigs.

Duran Duran, which has featured the musician Nick Rhodes, is sometimes associated with glam rock.
Duran Duran, which has featured the musician Nick Rhodes, is sometimes associated with glam rock.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


I think saying that Liberace was a "forerunner to Glam Rock" is a bit of a stretch. T. Rex/Marc Bolan was the actual originator.


@sapphire12, while they were not the first people who sang about things like isolation and being different, it is true that glam rockers sang about these themes in a different way than, say, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, or other musicians of the 1960s and early 1970s. Glam Rock was much more forward and confrontational about these issues.

In fact, their upfront attitude, added to the style of glam rock costumes, are just a couple of the reasons that glam rock is seen as a major influence of most punk rock that followed. While punk musicians toned down the gender roles, the style of dress was similar; they also sang about many of the same themes.


One thing people often don't think about in glam rock is that it really was not just about the gender confusion, but also the issues of the day. Top glam rock artists, especially David Bowie (Or Ziggy Stardust, as one of his earliest incarnations was called) and Queen, sang about things no one else would sing about, and not just drug use; they also sang about homosexuality, fighting adversity, and general isolation themes that, until that time, were not a big part of rock ad roll. Now, of course, this has become a huge part of what people sing about.


You missed out Bolan. He and Bowie started Glam Rock, rather competitively.

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