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?Analyzing Bowie: Life on Mars


The story is well known: in 1968, Bowie`s manager Ken Pitt presented him with a French song titled `Comme d`habitude` and suggested he`d write an English translation. David wrote a lyric called `Even a Fool Learns to Love`, and it was supposed to be his next single but was rejected by the publishers. Shortly after, the much more famous songwriter Paul Anka decided to have a go at the same song and the lyric he wrote was a paean to the American dream, which he called `My Way`. His creation swiftly became Frank Sinatra`s trademark number, and totally eclipsed the original and any other version in existence.

But Bowie didn`t forget, and three years later he was ready to retaliate with a record called `Life on Mars?` "Inspired by Frankie" says the Hunky Dory album sleeve, and the inspiration is usually attributed to `My Way``s chord progression and dramatic delivery, but I believe it inspired the content as well. Sinatra was well over fifty when he recorded it and he always sang it like he was telling us his own life story, the triumphant story of an artist and public figure who managed to do things his way. Bowie looks at it from the opposite angle, from the perspective of the young ones who haven`t made it yet and dream of being like Frankie, of being able to one day say "I did it my way". This is where `Life on Mars?` comes in.

And when it comes in, it throws us back to 1968 in yet another way: after we already got used to Bowie writing songs in the first-person, here he suddenly reverts to the theatrical style that characterized his 67-68 material, telling a third-person narrative about a lonely girl. He starts out singing in a choirboy voice, with minimal accompaniment, giving the impression of young innocence and purity.

It`s a god awful small affair
To the girl with the mousy hair
But her mummy is yelling "No!"
And her daddy has told her to go
But her friend is nowhere to be seen
Now she walks through her sunken dream
To the seat with the clearest view
And she`s hooked to the silver screen

It sounds at first like Bowie is taking us back to the early years of rock`n`roll and youth culture. We are reminded of Chuck Berry`s `Sweet Little Sixteen` who asks her mommy for permission to go out to a rock`n`roll concert and begs her daddy to tell her it`s alright with him. We are also reminded of those rock`n`roll records that celebrated the act of going out to the movies, which is where our sweet little sixteen is going. But a closer listening reveals that Bowie overturns the usual maxims of these records. "Saturday night at the movies / Who cares what picture you see? / When you`re hugging with your baby in the last row in the balcony," sang the Drifters in 1964, telling us what it was really about: you were not there to watch the movie, you were there for the smoochies. But here, the girl is not out on a date – she didn`t even bring a friend. And she`s not in the last row in the balcony, but rather in the seat with the clearest view. In other words, she`s there for the sole intent of watching the movies. Why is she so interested in them?

Because she`s hoping they will show her a different kind of life. Her own life is god-awfully small and boring, and she wants to go out into the big world, to find a more thrilling sort of existence. Her mother, representing the suburban state of mind, is afraid of the world and wants to hold her back, but her father encourages her to try. But we hear that her initial dream failed, so now she has to find another dream. That is why she turns to Hollywood, the theatre of dreams, hoping it can provide her with some heroic and exciting way of life she can try to live out, either in reality or in fantasy. However…

But the film is saddening bore
For she`s lived it ten times or more
She could spit in the eyes of fools
As they ask her to focus on

Sailors fighting in the dance hall
Oh man! Look at those cavemen go
It`s the freakiest show
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?

The cinema offers her no alternatives. It is a sentiment that we find in many of Bowie`s 70-71 records – a feeling that all the paths have already been tried, and there are no more ways to do it "my way". The movies she watches drape reality in fancy costumes, but underneath it all she can detect that the heroes` lives are no different than her own mundane existence, and that their world is still ruled by barbarity and injustice. The music changes, becoming like ominous soundtrack noise, and Bowie`s singing loses its innocence and turns theatrical, reflecting the fake nature of these dreams she is being offered. The sailor, in Bowie`s work, is an image of someone who is always impermanent, and thus symbolizes the state of the human race. Humans may get together and find love, but he suggests that these coming together are like dance halls, where we are only together for a while before we break up, and even there we are fighting instead of dancing. "Look at those cavemen go" is a line he steals from the Hollywood Argyles` 1960 hit `Alley Oop`, which was based on a popular comic-strip about a stone-age man that was a satire of contemporary American life. What it suggests, then, is that the girl feels that civilization has not progressed at all since prehistoric times, and everything remains the same. So the only hope to find a different kind of life, it seems, is to look beyond our world, and his voice shoots up an octave as he wonders "is there life on Mars?", as though trying to jump out of this bad world and into the other reality that may exist on Mars. But then it falls back again to the original note, back to Earth.

It`s on America`s tortured brow
That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow.
Now the workers have struck for fame
`Cause Lennon`s on sale again.
See the mice in their million hordes
From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads.
Rule Britannia is out of bounds
To my mother, my dog, and clowns,
But the film is a saddening bore
`Cause I wrote it ten times or more.
It`s about to be writ again
As I ask you to focus on
Sailors fighting etc.

In the second verse, Bowie switches back to talking in first-person, and we realize that the alienation he describes is the reality of his own life as well. We get a sense that the lines between real life and the movies have been blurred, as though the alienation makes him feel like he`s watching his life roll in front of his eyes instead of living it. And the images in this life-movie get jumbled up into meaningless mumbo-jumbo, where nothing is real anymore and everything has been incorporated into a capitalistic system that turns it all into a profit-making spectacle. Mickey Mouse, the symbol of pop culture, used to be something fresh, but now is just a cash cow. The workers used to strike for their rights and carry the hope of a revolution, but now they strike for fame, while Lennon (or Lenin – the way Bowie sings it allows hearing it both ways), who was supposed to offer them something more authentic, has also been incorporated and put on sale. The next couplet attacks the people who go on holiday resorts like Ibiza and the Norfolk Broads, accepting these temporary substitutes for Paradise instead of trying to transform life into something better – they are likened to hordes of mice with no awareness of their own. Maybe he`s also telling us that the other mice in the record – Mickey Mouse and the girl with the mousy hair – will also end up like that. And the last couplet might be Bowie`s comment on the 1971 immigration act, which restricted immigration into England and was another nail in the coffin of the dream of universal utopia. The dog and clowns are both symbols of outsiders in Bowie`s work, and here they are once again kicked out. Bowie then expresses his frustrations as an artist who wishes to write something new but realizes that everything he writes falls back into the same old patterns, back to the stories about sailors fighting and lawmen beating up the wrong guy. His last attempt to pull himself up to Mars fails once again, and its fall is accompanied by kettle drums, which bring to mind Kubrick`s 2001, the last movie that tried to offer us something new. But this movie is now three years old, and its cavemen have already gone.

This, then, is how Bowie sees youth culture in 1971. After the flowering of the sixties, when it seemed like the possibilities were endless and every month would bring something new and exciting with it, suddenly it feels like things have grinded to a halt and nothing is real any more. The need has arrived for a new messiah, someone who can take youth culture out of this quagmire. But if this messiah wants to offer something new to the kids, he will have to appear like he`s coming from beyond this world. Will he come from Mars? We didn`t need to wait long to find out.

In 1973, when Bowie was already the man from Mars, he shot several promos to some of his more famous records, each accentuating his alien image. `Life on Mars?` was arguably the best.


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