In Hear This, The A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: We pay tribute to one of the greatest artists of all time, David Bowie.
David Bowie, “Life On Mars?” (1971)
I woke up this morning bright and ready for a new Monday, even aiming to get the kids to school on time for once. Then I heard the news about David Bowie, sent everybody back to bed, and cried for a half-hour. We’ll take that tardy, thanks.
What is kicking our collective asses is that the news appeared to come out of nowhere: He just released a new album! He never looked even close to his age! Death and mortality is for puny humans like us, not extraterrestrial beings like David Bowie! So in scouting around in my grief-stricken state for a song for this Hear This, I have to go back to his fifth album Hunky Dory, which for a variety of reasons was my vinyl bible my freshman year of college. And no song spoke to me like “Life On Mars?”
Bowie starts out, “It’s a god-awful small affair / To the girl with the mousy hair,” singing straight to my teenage self, stranded on a gray Midwestern campus. Check and check. The girl walks to the stage show, hoping to be transported, but instead finds it a “saddening bore.” Inspired by Bowie, and also, the ’80s, my own mousy persona soon became a Clairol redhead with an asymmetrical haircut, and like the girl in the song, I wanted to transcend what appeared to be such a staid, domestic existence.
“Life On Mars?” is now considered a surreal masterpiece: It starts with a thin piano line, then the strings begin to swell, leading to lines like “Look at those cavemen go” and the “Lawman beating up the wrong guy.” Always ready to break boundaries, Bowie highlights this classic orchestration with a climactic guitar solo that fits right into this arrangement, which floats around in a much lovelier realm than most pop music in 1971. Like my young self, Bowie seemed to be watching gritty realities like “Sailors fighting in the dance hall” from a detached, almost bemused state, hopeful that life on Mars would offer the more resplendent world he and the girl both deserved. I couldn’t see it yet. But Bowie showed me it was there.