Oh my god. I just figured out what the central overarching meaning of the entirety of David Bowie’s life’s work is. All of it. It all fits. And I can’t figure out why I never saw this before.
My god. It all makes sense.
No, I’m not on drugs. No, I wasn’t even trying to figure it out. But since Blackstar came out I’ve been pondering the meaning of the video and lyrics, and especially since Bowie’s death I’ve been re-pondering it over and over, and listening to The Next Day, and other Bowie albums and songs, as well as listening to a radio documentary about him (narrated by Tim Minchin), and Amanda Palmer & Jherek Bischoff’s string quartet tribute, and other things as comfort in the wake of grief, using the music to try to fill up the inexplicable hole that was left in my psyche.*
Tonight I was watching the DVD “Best of Bowie,” which I’ve had for years (got as a fantastic Christmas present) and I usually watch piecemeal. Tonight I tried to watch it chronologically, starting at the beginning, but now I’ve paused to start this essay because the video for “Space Oddity” is the key to the entire thing.
Here it is. Here’s the secret that’s been in front of our eyes all this time:
In all of Bowie’s work, outer space is a metaphor for fame itself.
Maybe a million semiotics and pop culture theses have already been written on this subject: I don’t know. All I know is I never realized it before now, and now that I’ve seen it, I can’t unsee it. And the more songs I analyze the more I realize it fits.
Let’s start at the beginning, or pretty close to it. I’ve long thought that the metaphor of being from outer space in Bowie’s work merely represented being outside the strictures of society, which Bowie took as impingements on his creativity and artistic freedom. In particular at the start he placed his artistic personas outside those strictures by avoiding cisgender heteronormativity. Ziggy Stardust and the period from 1969 through 1974 cemented him as a queer icon in every sense of the word “queer.” Not like the others. Weird. Strange. Gay. Genderbent. Yes, no, and everything in between.
“But was he bisexual?” I hear you asking. I’ve written before many times (like here) about how I took him myself as a bisexual role model because he seemed to be the only one, and about how bisexuality itself was a marker of futurism in early sci-fi (here). But was he? The interview canon is clear on only one point: that Bowie declared his sexual identity to be different things at different times. He married Angela in 1970 but in a 1972 interview with Melody Maker stated “I am gay.” (But by the word “gay” seemed perhaps to mean what we now mean by “queer” — a catch-all term for everything that is not a zero on the Kinsey scale — and the same article says “He supposes he’s what people call bisexual.”) Two years later came the September 1976 Playboy interview (with Cameron Crowe!) in which he says “It’s true—I am bisexual.” But skip forward to a 1983 Rolling Stone interview (with Kurt Loder!) and you’ll find him saying that declaring himself bisexual was the biggest mistake he ever made, and from there on many many later interviews “recanting” or stating he wasn’t a “real” bisexual, or that he was so promiscuous that he was physical with men but he didn’t really like it (which I suppose is the pop star version of “I smoked pot but I didn’t inhale”). Just Google and you’ll find them.
These varying statements actually all make sense if you look at them within the context of art itself, though, and the fact that Bowie’s priority was always artistic freedom. Bowie’s “bisexual phase” came at a time when being bi was the quickest way to place himself outside of the realm of the expected. His later recantations often make explicit that the reason he came to hate being “labeled” bisexual was BECAUSE IT CREATED STRICTURES AND EXPECTATIONS. In particular he had not realized that in the United States he would be forever after referred to, as if it were part of his name, “bisexual pop star David Bowie,” and so it is no wonder he did everything possible to sever what had once been a liberating force but had become a ball and chain.
He never would succeed in laying the question to rest, though, because interviewers well into this decade were still asking him about it. Not to mention that for a full four decades Angie Bowie was still doing the talk show circuit telling the same story about finding David and Mick Jagger in bed together. I’ve always wondered why no one actually seems to care whether Mick Jagger is bi and far as I can tell it’s because regardless of what he may do in bed, Jagger long ago became a conformist, an unchanging classic rock icon, whereas Bowie’s persistent “consistent” mode of expression was NEVER to conform to expectations. And in our culture, nonconformists will always be challenged while conformists will be given a pass.
Ultimately the “queerness” of Bowie’s image was not sexuality per se, but an ARTISTIC queerness that required constant change to stay out of the center. None of that is news. Bowie became the patron saint of misfits by his constant movement to whatever thing gave him “outsider” status because outside perspective was his muse. He seemed to be saying “never play it safe, always reach for the stars.” Don’t just sit around with your feet in the mud like boring, regular humans: go for launch, even if it’s dangerous. No: Because it’s dangerous.
And this brings us to why outer space is a metaphor for fame itself in Bowie’s work, not just in the Ziggy Stardust era but right through to his most recent two albums, The Next Day and Blackstar.
As I mentioned at the top of the essay, watching a video for “Space Oddity” made it obvious to me. The Mick Rock-directed video on the “Best of Bowie” two DVD set is dated 1972, but the song comes from 1969 and was re-released again in ’73. The budget being low and special effects being non-existent at the time, the video features Bowie lip-synching solo with a guitar intercut with various “sci-fi” and “space age”-seeming visuals of giant control boards full of switches and wave forms on an LCD. But wait, those control boards are the mixing board in the recording studio. And that green wave form is SOUND…
Maybe these elements are used just because they looked cool, were on hand, and there wasn’t a budget for anything else.
Or maybe they’re saying that the recording studio itself is “mission control.” Our Starman is being launched from right there inside the music studio, not into outer space but into the stratosphere of fame.
The constant equating of beings from–or in–outer space as superior to conformist humans continues throughout Bowie’s work, not just in Ziggy Stardust. So he sings in 1971’s Hunky Dory: “Oh! You Pretty Things.”
This song tells the story of aliens come to Earth and equates them with the teenagers busting out of the strictures of the older generation, declaring among other things, that “Homo Sapiens have outgrown their use” and “You gotta make way for the Homo Superior.”
Look at your children
See their faces in golden rays
Don’t kid yourself they belong to you
They’re the start of a coming race
Also from Hunky Dory is “Life on Mars.” With a title like that you think it’s going to be about, well, Mars. No, it’s about the ENTERTAINMENT BUSINESS. Mars is Planet Hollywood. The song references Mickey Mouse, “Lennon on sale,” the film industry, and maybe even presages reality TV and our addictions to Fox News/CNN:
And she’s hooked to the silver screen
But the film is a saddening bore
For she’s lived it ten times or more
Take a look at the Lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man! Wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?
(By the way…is there any chance this 1973 video didn’t influence the production design of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which came out in 1975 but was based on a London stage show from 1973? Which way did the influence run, I wonder, given that Frank N Furter is a transvestite alien from outer space?)
In the complicated chronology of Bowie’s early career, Ziggy then got re-released, and the song “Starman” became the next big hit. A fantastic re-telling of the science fiction rock opera plot of Ziggy Stardust is found in a 1974 Rolling Stone interview, in which Bowie and William S. Burroughs interview each other. Bowie explains that Ziggy is a rock star who becomes a prophet for the Infinites (who are personified black holes) and who is ultimately destroyed in service to these beings from space: they literally take parts of his body to give themselves bodies to inhabit.
But the lyrics we all know are:
“When the kids had killed the man, I had to break up the band.”
So in Ziggy Stardust, not only does outer space=fame, it can kill you.
On the subject of fame itself being a central theme, how about 1970’s (pre-Ziggy-re-release) album “The Man Who Sold The World.” Title self-explanatory. This is the album where an androgynous long-haired Bowie wears a dress on the cover. Or for that matter the song “Fame,” from 1975, when Bowie was out of the Ziggy Stardust phase and into his Thin White Duke phase.
By 1980, of course we have the “sequel” to “Space Oddity,” in the song “Ashes to Ashes,” which is fairly universally interpreted as using the “Major Tom” character as a biographical stand-in for Bowie to sing about his own drug addiction–one of the prices of fame. In the video we even see an attack of “the shakes” brought on by a camera flash. We also see here something I haven’t brought up before but which also shows up as a motif regarding fame and adulation, which is religious figures: see previous ideas about Ziggy Stardust as a prophet, etc.
But what if we posit not only “Ashes to Ashes” but that the original Major Tom in “Space Oddity” was always meant to be a biographical stand-in for Bowie, musing on what would happen if his career “took off” and propelled him into being “a star”? “The papers want to know whose shirts you wear.”
Think about it. If looking in from outside was Bowie’s muse, then all of Bowie’s art is meta-art, too, because it looks at itself from inside and outside. Bowie was nothing if not aware of what he was doing at all times.
I’d also like to bring in the short film “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean” which seems to be largely forgotten these days. Bowie worked with director Julien Temple (later of Absolute Beginners) and tapped him to introduce the persona of Screaming Lord Byron. It was 1984 and the heyday of MTV, which debuted the 20-minute film much the way it had the long version of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. In the film Bowie plays both the helpless rock star who is propped up by his entourage, fed endless drugs, and who suffers intense paranoia and agoraphobia except while performing, and also the hapless nobody who hopes that pretending to be friends with the rock star will impress a woman. It doesn’t get much more blatant than that as an indictment of the rock star mythos and dangers of fame while at the same time being yet another work representing Bowie’s chameleonic nature.
Fast forward to 1996 and let’s talk about “Hallo Spaceboy,” the next most obvious reference to Major Tom. In remixes with The Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant, Tennant sings lyrics from “Space Oddity” as if they had gone through the William S. Burroughs “cut up” technique. But even before that, the song exists as an encapsulation of Bowie’s own experience of fame, one in which interviewers asked him, incessantly, throughout his entire life, whether he was bisexual, when all he wanted was to be free to create more art:
And I want to be free
Don’t you want to be free
Do you like girls or boys
It’s confusing these days
But Moondust will cover you
The chorus he repeats again and again is “This chaos is killing me. Bye bye love.” Do I even have to explain this one any further than that? Spaceboy=Major Tom=Bowie both suffering from and thriving on fame. It’s confusing these days, but moondust will cover you.
(I love this live version with Nine Inch Nails…)
We can even make a stop in 2003, when Bowie’s album was called Reality, and the single was “New Killer Star.”
Oh, my nuclear baby
Oh, my idiot trance
All my idiot questions
Let’s face the music and dance
Yep. (And there are many other songs I could bring in but this essay is getting really long as it is.)
And that brings us to The Next Day, Bowie’s “surprise” album of 2013. Most of us assumed that after a massive heart attack in 2004–suffered backstage while on tour in Germany–that he had retired. He had only appeared live once, for a single song at a benefit concert, after the attack, and was not seen in the public eye much, either, for nearly a decade. But then, voila, out came a fully formed album of guitar-driven rock, packed with references to his early career–even the cover of the album is the cover of Heroes merely pasted over with the words THE NEXT DAY in simple text. As I said before, all Bowie art is meta-art, and that made The Next Day meta-meta-art.
Several videos were released to promote the album, one of them (above) an extended short film co-starring Tilda Swinton, a British actress who was so often fancifully called the “female David Bowie” in her career (specifically for projecting a Bowie-esque otherworldly androgyny) that it seemed fated that they should eventually work together. That song is “The Stars are Out Tonight” and the film literally brings the fictionalized version of retiree Bowie and wife (Swinton) face to face with young, urgent, genderbent tabloid-press versions of themselves. The lyrics seem another indictment of celebrity:
They watch us from behind their shades
Brigitte, Jack and Kate and Brad
We will never be rid of these stars
But I hope they live forever
How could I have missed it before? Of course. THE STARS. ARE. THE STARS.
Which brings us, of course, to Blackstar, which is both the name of the album Bowie knew would be his farewell, and the major single from it, pre-released with a video that seems to tell us that Major Tom’s ultimate fate was for his skull to become the worship object of a cult. (Is the compulsive ecstatic dancing a reference to “Let’s Dance”–“put on your red shoes and dance the blues”–where the red shoes could be a reference to the fairy tale of compulsive dancing?)
“Blackstar” is a rangy and ambitious song that covers a lot of ground, but it serves perfectly as the encapsulation of this idea that outer space and fame are one and the same in Bowie’s work. Major Tom went into outer space and now he is the object of adulation. Being a star is literally being a star. I’ve seen analyses of the song’s lyrics that state there is no unifying story to the lyrics. But when I look at them they ALL point to this same central theme of the Star as Star: being from space, object of adulation, celebrity.
You’re a flash in the pan (I’m not a marvel star)
I’m the Great I Am (I’m a blackstar)
I’m a blackstar, way up on money, I’ve got game
I see right, so wide, so open-hearted pain
I want eagles in my daydreams, diamonds in my eyes
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)
Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre then stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a star’s star, I’m a blackstar)
Ultimately, then, I see this theme of outer space=fame to have a progression in which Bowie has used it throughout his entire career to express his own fear that fame would destroy him, until at the very end he came to realize it would not.
Ziggy Stardust is torn to pieces by “the kids” and/or the black holes, Major Tom is lost in space, or maybe is lost to drugs and addiction and self-delusion (“Time and time I tell myself, I’ll stay clean tonight… but the planet it glowing.”), Screaming Lord Byron belongs in an asylum except he’s the Golden Goose, and Spaceboy is so torn apart by the constant questioning that the “chaos is killing me.” But then in the face of mortality, post-heart-attack, a kind of reluctant acceptance sets in: “We will never be rid of these stars, but I hope they live forever.” And ultimately Bowie knew with Blackstar as a parting gift, a sendoff, that the message was that he WILL live forever. Because all the kids who took parts of him into themselves assured it. Those of us who knew him through his music will continue to know him through it and the man himself can pass on in peace. And someone–perhaps everyone–who absorbed the moondust will rise up next.
*When I say hole, I should probably say ravaged tatters, because Bowie was so inextricably woven throughout all my own creative work for my entire life so much I didn’t even realize the extent. He was so much a part of the artistic air I breathe that I took him for granted, I think. But think about it: the hero of my multiple award-winning romance novel Slow Surrender is based on him. The most important character after Daron in my magnum opus Daron’s Guitar Chronicles is named Ziggy. Being a misfit bisexual who defies easy labeling and doesn’t stick to a single genre has been my creative and artistic role my entire life, making Bowie a role model on multiple levels. My previous elegy “It’s like a guardian angel is gone” is here https://blog.ceciliatan.com/archives/2690
“Nothing has Changed,” Bowie’s last greatest hits compilation, is a career retrospective presented in reverse chronological order. “Heaven’s high to an all-time low?”
I always felt that the lyric “all time low” had to be a reference to the album Low. (But everything was a reference with Bowie.)
th is an interesting write up. it really opened my eye to so many things.
Glad you thought so.
Wow. I think you have the beginnings of a PhD thesis here. I’m not being snide, I’m serious. I don’t know Bowie’s opus nearly this well, but your arguments are persuasive and your knowledge is clearly encyclopedic.
And btw I’m really enjoying TAKING THE LEAD…!
I’d be surprised if there weren’t already a pile of PhD or Masters theses on this subject, honestly. But now that I’m not connected with a university I don’t have access to the library search anymore!
Glad you’re enjoying the book! <3