This is an indulgence inspired by the release last week of David Bowie’s new song and video ‘Blackstar’. The video stars Bowie as a blind man with buttons for eyes on top of the bandages over his real eyes, and as a prophet with windswept hair brandishing a battered book with a black star on the cover.
The video also features a woman with a tail, shuddering dancers, men with their eyes bandaged like Bowie’s who are dressed like scarecrows being crucified, and a consciously fake looking medieval / middle eastern village (compare this to the video for Loving the Alien, and the song and video both reference the crusades and the exchange of ideas between Christian Europe and Muslim Levant. The double meaning of alien as ‘other’ and as ‘extraterrestrial’ seems deliberate). A distant mountain is dominated by three monolithic structures emanating light.
What does it mean? Nothing necessarily. It could be a bundle of delicious nonsense, but according to its director, Johan Renck, there is meaning in it. I’m primarily interested in the implications this new video has for Bowie’s ongoing Major Tom narrative.
Like other discussions of popular narratives, it’s important to begin by defining boundaries and the scope of the discussion. This interpretation of the history of Major Tom will only refer to canonical works (works created and published by Bowie; there are many others). It will also draw a distinction between lyrical and visual narratives, as the story of Major Tom and its interpretation have depended on divergent lyrical and visual narratives from the start. And let us agree for the sake of this discussion that, whilst most enjoyable, Neil Tennant’s cut and paste of Bowie’s lyrics from Space Oddity into the Pet Shop Boy’s remix of Hallo Spaceboy contributes no new information to the Major Tom narrative.
One of the prevailing interests or concerns in Bowie’s work is the concept of reality, and how reality is experienced. Associated with this are ideas about states of consciousness, hallucinations, alienation and mental illness. Bowie’s personae, characters and narrators experience and express profound ambivalence and anxiety about their sanity and whether what they are seeing and experiencing is real or a hallucination caused by mental illness. Obvious examples include ‘Look back in anger’ (the lyrics and the Dorian Gray inspired video) and ‘Jump they say’. There are many more.
To begin, we must summarise the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which inspired Space Oddity. Commander David Bowman exits his spaceship and flies his little pod towards a black monolith, which opens to become a gateway to somewhere else. He transverses space, time and other dimensions before arriving at a location created to house him by an unseen intelligence, which brings it into existence. He’s in a room designed to reference neoclassical Earth aesthetics, presumably to make him feel at home. While in the room Bowman ages and dies while being aware of the presence of multiple versions of himself at different ages. It is implied that the laws of physics work very differently where he is, that time is bending, looping and collapsing in on itself. All is now and now is eternal.
Bowman is confused and disoriented and it is plausible to question the reality of what he is experiencing. Has his psychedelic trip been in in outer space or inner space (the mind)? If his journey really happened, has his exposure to the infinite made him mad, unable to cope? After death he is reborn as a star child and it is implied that he has been absorbed by and is now part of the unseen intelligence.
Space Oddity presents a simplified parallel narrative. In the lyrics of ‘Space Oddity’ (1969), an astronaut called Major Tom is sent into orbit around Earth on a solo mission. He conducts a EVA spacewalk. In the next verse he’s described as being back in his tin can (space capsule). He sends a message of love to his wife, which in hindsight seems to be a cryptic farewell. Ground Control then loses contact with him. In the final verse he is ‘floating round’ his tin can, which is ambiguous.
Is he floating in zero gravity within the capsule, or is he floating (a)round (outside of) the capsule? We don’t know if there’s been a mechanical fault severing communications, or if he’s chosen to sever them (the message to the wife can be interpreted as a hint to it being a choice). Whatever has happened, he’s alone, lost and not in control (‘there’s nothing I can do’). Like Bowman, Tom is a passenger on a journey he doesn’t understand.
The original video for the song, filmed before the recording of the officially released version of the song, features an early arrangement of the music but what is more important is the visual narrative. Major Tom encounters two beautiful women while out on his spacewalk. Are they alien sirens drawing him to his death, or hallucinations? If hallucinations, are they caused by external forces, such as oxygen starvation, or stress? Has the loneliness and isolation of floating alone in space sent Major Tom mad? Is a menage a trois merely the final delirium of an astronaut about to die? The video ends with Major Tom inside the capsule with the sirens. The video mimics the psychedelic trip sequence from 2001 with a circular eye image portal and the colours change from blue to red to green. He’s forgotten his mission and purpose.
It’s obvious that the lyrical and visual narratives about Major Tom have diverged from their beginning in 1969. In ‘Ashes to Ashes‘ (1980) we learn that Major Tom is a junkie. We can infer that his visions may be drug induced hallucinations, or that drug use has sent him insane. Pierrot on the beach with the bulldozer and new romantics with the solarised colour treatment is the equivalent of Bowman in his neoclassical room. Major Tom’s silver space-suit has morphed into a silver Pierrot costume. He is at one with the entity, beyond the infinite, walking at peace with the vision of an elderly woman (his mother?). In the sequel to 2001, 2010: The Year we Make Contact (1984), a vision or apparition of Bowman appears to his elderly mother on her death-bed. Made after the Ashes to Ashes video, it’s a spooky parallel.
We also see Bowie in a padded cell, in other words a mental patient, and Major Tom strapped to a chair in distress in a suburban kitchen with a housewife (his wife, or mother again at a younger age? Presumably it should not all be taken literally as reality. Has Major Tom taken too many protein pills and got off his face, perhaps causing further problems or is getting high a coping mechanism after experiencing problems? Is the vision of home on Earth another wish fulfilment hallucination of a man still floating alone in space?
In The British Pop Dandy: Masculinity, Popular Music and Culture (Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2009), Stan Hawkins describes Pierrot’s temperament as ‘naive’ and ‘trusting’, and argues that Pierrot is frequently depicted as ‘moonstruck, vacant and far removed from reality’ (p60). There’s more about Bowie and Pierrot in David Bowie: Critical Perspectives (Routledge, 24 Mar 2015). In the context of Ashes to Ashes, this suggests that Pierrot is a dream and the trapped Major Tom is the reality.
Ground Control receives a chilling cryptic message from Major Tom: ‘I’m happy, hope you’re happy too…’ An explosion shakes Major Tom out of this reverie and the kitchen changes to the inside of a capsule where he is flailing, connected to hoses, life support systems failing. This is reality. The video returns to this image as it fades out. ‘Major Tom thought he was starring in an Arthur C Clarke story and found himself in a Philip K Dick one by mistake‘. In other words, it starts as a serene dream and turns into a gritty nightmare.
Lyrically, the Major Tom narrative ends with Ashes to Ashes, but the visual narrative continues in intriguing video fragments. In ‘Slow Burn’ (2002) Bowie is in a recording studio, dressed in white and making vaguely Thin White Duke poses, while a young girl sits at the mixing desk controlling proceedings. Towards the end the girl points to something unseen and Bowie looks pensive.
Did Major Tom eventually make it to the moon (the presumed purpose of his mission)? Bowie is seen standing beside a space-suit, then the girl falls asleep on the chest of the slumped suit and the camera pans right to reveal the studio is on the moon and we’re looking at a small Earth in the distant sky. Superimposed over this is the image of Bowie waving his arms mimicking a bird flapping its wings. The spirit of Major Tom has left the building.
Finally we come to Blackstar. The video contains the image of a space-suit lying on a moon, dusty and abandoned. A smiley face badge is sewn on the suit (evidence to confirm ‘I’m happy…’?). When the helmet visor is opened we see a bejewelled skull. Is it the remains of Major Tom, now long dead? It’s unclear whether the rest of the skeleton is still in the suit. In a later scene we see a skeleton floating in space drifting towards the dark side of a planet or moon in the halo of a sun. Is this the blackstar? It looks like this skeleton has no skull.
The skull is kept and worshipped by a group of women, for whom it has become a religious relic. Has Major Tom become a relic (in both senses of the word)? Is he something from the past that Bowie has chosen to kill off in the video, or has he become iconic? I’d expect the glamorous Ziggy Stardust to have a skull like that, but not the working man Major Tom. Analogous to 2001, Major Tom’s skull is the star-child, literally disembodied (if that is his skeleton floating in space). He has passed from mortality to immortality and has become an almost supernatural entity of potent force.
‘On the day of execution, only women kneel and smile’. In ‘Blackstar’ women are the custodians of the skull and men are being executed on the cross. ‘My mother said, to get things done, you’d better not mess with Major Tom…’ Did they blind themselves like Oedipus, or was this done to them? Did they mess with Major Tom? Conspiracy theories in the comments below please.