‘Life on Mars’, David Bowie’s 1971 Honky Dory track and single is, on face value, a whimsical piece of futuristic baroque pop not alike several other works of his from this era. But, probing deeper one finds a treasure chest of hidden meanings, references and inferences. To me it’s a wonderful entry point to him as an artist for these very facts; here he’s both highly accessible in a hummable Pop way, while also proving himself to be a totally unique musician, stretching the boundaries of his form.
The song begins to a small, lilting piano, accompanying a tale of a teenage girl ‘with the mousy hair’ who is seeking rebellion from her parents and seeking refuge in her favorite piece of media (in this case, the movie show) via the conduit of Bowie’s favorite one (the pop music single). At this point it’s standard pop stuff, but then Bowie adds a twist, he proclaims, ‘she’s lived it [rebellion] ten times or more’ at which point the question (thankfully Bowie refuses to answer it) becomes, is this a genuine rebellion against boredom or merely another stance (i.e. fake rebellion) that the culture respects more and see as slightly more ‘authentic’.
The chorus adds additional color; Bowie describes entertainment posing: what actors do in movies to cavemen, another role now only existing in our popular media. The last line of the chorus again provides the twisting counterpoint much like the first verse: ‘wonder if he’ll ever know, he’s in the best selling show’. An actor would always know they are in performance, but if the ‘best selling show’ is extrapolated to us, to the teenage female protagonist, then it’s life itself that we are unaware what is and that isn’t real. He ends the chorus then with a rephrasing of the tracks title, ‘Is there life on Mars?’ which reads like a reference to Orson Welle’s broadcast of War of the Worlds, a ‘real’ enough bit of fake pop culture that it created panic when people thought we were actually being invaded by aliens, which summarizes our themes up to this point.
The next verse, which I feel to be some of the most intricately clever wordplay not just in Bowie’s catalogue but in Pop music as a whole, sees a thread where Mickey Mouse (a popular figure in youth entertainment) is compared to a cow (a degrading adjective short for ‘cash cow’) that in turn moves to ‘the workers have struck for fame, because Lennon’s on sale again’. The reference codes Mickey Mouse to the Disney worker strikes to Unionize in their studio in early Forties (events where forever shill Walt Disney sought their punishment) to John Lennon’s newest political stances being sold as entertainment (in this case, his latest solo LP). Read, and heard this quickly, Lennon is an apt simile to USSR leader Lenin, with any reference to a worker would lead a curious mind to the works of Karl Marx (someone, in a circular way, can also be linked back to John Lennon who read Karl Marx vigorously, and later created the single ‘Working Class Hero’ partly in honor of him). The message is clear, ‘serious art’ that speaks in pro-rebellious messages creates the same amount of revenue when bought as simplistic art does, and neither are set to shake the foundation of the commerce system they need to operate under. The final lines are as depressive as Bowie gets in the single, a telling fact in a song as far-reaching about our problems as this one is, as it laments the extent of the problem (the whole of Western World, from America, to Ibiza [a small island off Spain’s coast], to the Norfolk Broads [England]).
The song, on final exposition, then sits us in contemplative mood. Our media—all forms of entertainment in the Society of the Spectacle (as Debord put it) from TV, film, books, magazines, etcetera, have become so transparently aggressive that our very lives are mimicking them and thus, reducing all of us to copies of copies. We perform a pose, where life used to sit; we react in a way we’ve seen or emote and feel in ways we think we should. The question mark in the title isn’t ironic, it’s hopefully questioning that maybe it still is a question, even when Bowie probably knows it’s merely a rhetorical one. That he’s able to produce such thrilling Pop highs in his delivery is magical, an enticing elixir helping us swallow his poisonous message of a pill.
To pick a song by this man today is to be larger than one mere track, as his is a oeuvre that could be argued is deeper and more reaching that any single artist in the Rock era (it’s at least tied with others for the top spot). A testament to his unwavering artistry is how well he’s aged; not only are the records still vital, creative explosions, but I’m literal too. He aged tremendously, his is the only career in the field that can honestly say it has a masterpiece in 6 decades. Many artists sit at 5, but in the need for a work as fresh and exciting as the last 2 Bowies, which shows just how hard that is to actually do. I have no doubt he’d have released another masterpiece in his seventh, but who cares, he has enough to last for centuries. His spirit, like all his personas, is now stretched across the Cosmos. Yes, there is now a life on Mars, an inimitable one.