By Rebecca Couzens
David Bowie’s 1971 song “Life On Mars?” is an iconic reference to 1970s pop culture. The song, released on the album “Hunky Dory,” tells the story of a girl who encounters an argument with her parents, and makes her way to the cinema to escape her reality in favor of a fantastical one. While the true meaning of Bowie’s bizarre words are hard to navigate, the lyrics transcend confusion and achieve an unspoken understanding with the listener. Along with the young girl’s storyline, the song makes multiple references to politics and pop-culture of the 1960s and 1970s, giving it meaning and depth along with emotion. At first glance, the language of “Life On Mars?” is perplexing and unclear. However, when analyzed, Bowie offers an image of the loneliness and longing of an individual which parallels a nation longing for peace, both of whom seek escape from life’s turmoil.
I remember what I felt when listening to “Life On Mars?” for the first time. It was January of my sophomore year in high school, and David Bowie had just passed away. I was up late at night watching videos of him, and came across the video for “Life On Mars?”. It featured Bowie, or Ziggy Stardust at the time, in his baby blue suit and eccentric makeup, singing in a completely white room. This was the first time I had ever felt a personal connection with an artist. I was experiencing what Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle describe as, “the feeling that the author is ‘a terrific friend of yours’ or that your appreciation and understanding of an author is so intense it touches on the telepathic” (20-21). The video was nothing extravagant, but I remember listening to the music and immediately feeling so understood, that I began to cry.
While I was uncertain of the song’s meaning, I interpreted Bowie’s lyrics as the pain of being misunderstood. The sorrowful idea of a girl being turned away by her parents, along with the chorus lyrics, “Sailor’s fighting in the dance hall […]Take a look at the lawman beating up the wrong guy” gave me a vivid image of unnecessary conflict and betrayal by those who should be gaining justice. I heard “Life On Mars?” during a very hard year for me. I think it was when my perception of the world became a little more mature, and I realized that darkness is a part of life that is sometimes inevitable. The “real world” became a concept so scary to me at that age because I thought that I was doomed to fail. I was in that painful developmental process of self-discovery and exploration that occurs during teenage years, and I was trying to figure out who I was during these revelations. In retrospect, I see this is a stage that many go through; however, no one spoke openly about such struggles, and Bowie gave me recognition during this time in my life.
Furthermore, “Life On Mars?” goes even deeper than my initial reactions as a 15 year old. When analyzing the second verse of “Life On Mars?” in particular, the song’s Marxist ideals become apparent. This contradiction of ideology, is described by French philosopher Louis Althusser, as going against “the system of ideas and representations that dominate the mind of man [sic] or a social group” (qtd. in Bennet and Royle, 233). In other words, the lyrics represent a perspective not being encouraged or fed by the media at the time. In this verse, the song becomes increasingly political compared to the first. Rather than focusing on the unnamed girl’s story, different political references are sung. It seems that a Marxist stance is being taken against the ideology of the media and political issues of the time. America is personified with a “tortured brow,” giving the impression that America is under immense pressure. This is a reference to America during the times of the Vietnam War, an occurrence that many Americans opposed to since it was perceived as unnecessary violence. The lyric, “That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow,” references that there is an innocent façade among those in political power: Mickey Mouse, an innocent, loveable cartoon, has turned into a “cash cow,” since economic growth takes place during times of war. This symbolizes how the citizens against the efforts of the Vietnam war viewed the political power. Another view of anti-Patriotism is sung during “Rule Britannia is out of bounds.” A stance is being taken against the British song of patriotism, “Rule Britannia.” While Britain never entered the war, “Its government… was fully supportive of American containment policy in general and its intervention in Vietnam in early 1960s…” (Rogers). This lyric suggests that Britain is simply witnessing the unnecessary violence, and while they are not actively pursuing the war, they are not doing anything to stop it either. “Life On Mars?” reveals that those in political power who should be keeping the country safe and promoting peace are entering a war that causes unnecessary devastation and death.
The authenticity of those striving to make a change are put into question when Bowie sings the lyrics, “Cause Lennon’s on sale again.” John Lennon was a face for leftist views on politics and was openly anti-war (I Met The Walrus, 0:38-0:50). “Life On Mars?“ is skeptical regarding whether his motives are genuine, or if he is just another man chasing popularity. New information regarding Lennon and issues within his personal life have since surfaced, describing his drug-use and violent behavior. Lennon even admitted to these acts and claimed, “That is why I am always on about peace, you see. It is the most violent people who go for love and peace” (qtd. in Oyler). “Life On Mars?” brings forth the possibility of a celebrity putting on a facade, and contradicting their own messages in privacy, and ultimately “selling-out” to gain the approval of the public. Bowie then sings about the common folk, who are portrayed in the lyrics, “Now the workers have struck for fame,” which claims that those supporting celebrities, like Lennon, and supporting the anti-war movement, are doing so because it is simply another trend. Whether a change is pursued, depends on the bravery to take initiative; however, perhaps no one will care enough to do so. “Life On Mars?” describes the vicious cycle of change seemingly being sought after, but never achieved by the community.
Lastly, the most emphasized lyrics of the song are asked in the question: “Is there life on Mars?”. This existential question applies to the loneliness and longing of the girl in the first verse, along with the political issues that arise in the second. The lyric asks whether there is an escape from the madness of one’s own life, and if there is, when will it be achieved? This is an issue that relates to many, but is often not spoken about explicitly; however, Bowie elongates the lyrics and makes it the focal point of the song. Bennet and Royle define literature as “the space in which the questions of personal identity are most provocatively articulated” (151). While song is defined as music rather than literature, there is certainly a sense of poetry within lyrics. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, poetry is defined as “writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm.” This is what Bowie’s lyrics made me experience, while listening to “Life on Mars?”. I felt like someone finally saw me and my need for escape in a time of turmoil. Just by discovering this song, my life was changed for the better.
The meaning of “Life On Mars?” speaks of the struggles within developmental times in becoming an individual and a separate entity from a whole. One encounters the tough realization that she will not always share the same views and opinions as her parents, while a nation realizes that those in control will sometimes turn a blind eye to the civilians they are supposed to protect. Both parties seek escape from life’s struggles and need to be heard and recognized. While the escape to another planet may not be feasible, artists are here to articulate what cannot be expressed by many. That is what I love about David Bowie. He was an outsider, and he spoke for outsiders through his music, which was an escape for the listener.
Bennett, Andrew, and Nicholas Royle. An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. Routledge, 2016, pgs. 20-21,151, 233. http://site.iugaza.edu.ps/ahabeeb/files/2012/02/An_Introduction_to_Literature__Criticism_and_Theory.pdf
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