Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Sitting in a tin can: 12 songs sung by orbiting astronauts

Illustration: Nick Wanserski

1. Blink-182, “Asthenia” (2003)

In case anyone should confuse it with being a metaphor for a breakup (which would make total sense in a Blink-182 song), Tom DeLonge had this to say about “Asthenia” in the liner notes for the band’s 2003 self-titled album: “This song is about one thing only, an astronaut sitting in a space capsule about the size of a car, floating above the Earth.” The same could be said of many songs on this list, but unlike some of the other space-traveling narrators, his astronaut expresses no awe or wonder at the star-speckled void around him, only fear and emptiness. That’s an interesting choice, considering DeLonge’s longstanding fascination with space and self-professed contact with aliens. But even when the guitars start to roar a minute or so after a transmission from NASA’s Apollo 9 mission, the space explorer feels nothing but numb and tired. “Should I go back?” he asks over and over. As much as he wants to, he’s probably resigned to a fate of orbiting the planet in a hunk of metal, his consciousness slipping away as pop-punk blares tinnily from a satellite transmission. [Dan Caffrey]


2. Harry Nilsson, “Spaceman” (1972)

Given the way public interest in the space program has waned over the years, there’s a decided poignancy in the way Harry Nilsson bemoans, “I wanted to be a spaceman / That’s what I want to be / But now that I am a spaceman / Nobody cares about me.” As the songs winds to its conclusion, the narrator doesn’t seem to be any nearer to landfall than he does at the start, complaining to the folks at Mission Control, “You better bring me back down / I’ve taken just as much as I can.” Less a case of parallel evolution than one of Nilsson not particularly paying attention to anything else going on in the world of music, “Spaceman” arrived only about three months after Elton John released “Rocket Man,” resulting in Nilsson’s spaceman-centric song getting less airplay than it likely would have otherwise. The big and brassy number still made an impact, however: Not only did it hit No. 23 on the Billboard Hot 100, but Martin Scorsese has gone on record that he was such a fan of the song that he seriously considered using it in Mean Streets. [Will Harris]

3. Wolf Parade, “Yulia” (2010)

Heartfelt yearning is nothing new for a Wolf Parade song, but “Yulia,” off the band’s final 2010 album Expo 86, takes that longing and sadness into deep space. The song tells the story of a Russian cosmonaut, addressing his true love back on Earth. To add finality to his cries, he’s already realized he’s stranded up there, and will die “20 million miles from a comfortable home.” The entire narrative is simple but affecting, as he slowly transitions from first watching the stars, to realizing he doesn’t know if his body will ever be recovered, to asking Yulia not to talk about him, instead telling her to “point up to the dark above you / As they edit me from history.” It’s about as bleak as you can get, and yet the pulsing music transforms the tragedy into a celebratory elegy for this doomed spaceman. [Alex McCown]


4. David Bowie, “Space Oddity” (1969)

David Bowie’s lifelong use of outer-space motifs began with Major Tom. And although the character would appear to pop up several times in Bowie’s later work as a metaphor for fame, drug addiction, and an intentional foreshadowing of his own death, Tom’s genesis was much simpler: an astronaut who, after venturing outside of his space capsule, gets separated from his vessel. He spends the rest of the song immersed in contemplative fascination and fear at his surroundings, quietly saying goodbye to his wife as the moon and Earth become glowing marbles below him. Since his fate is left somewhat ambiguous, one could argue that he makes it out alive, perhaps finding his way back to his ship or getting picked up by some benevolent alien race. But the video for “Blackstar” tells us otherwise. Also, Bowie died, which means Tom—himself often a fictional stand-in for the artist—probably did, too. Although the astronaut did get a sequel song: Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom (Coming Home)” in 1983. [Dan Caffrey]


5. Deep Purple, “Space Truckin’” (1972)

Where so many of the other songs on this list explore the loneliness and existential pondering that come with space travel, Deep Purple prefers to howl about what a blast it is. Thunderous and unapologetically macho, “Space Truckin’” adopts the persona of a cosmic traveler who’s more of a party animal than a traditional astronaut, hauling ass from planet to planet to dance and rock the faces off countless extraterrestrial beings. If the lyrics had more violence and nudity, the song would be the sonic equivalent to a Heavy Metal comic; even without those things, it would fit in comfortably on the soundtrack of the film adaptation of the same name. That makes “Space Truckin’” a rarity in the subgenre of astronaut songs, a hunk of early hard rock that trades introspection for primitive fun. [Dan Caffrey]


6. Elton John, “Rocket Man” (1972)

Elton John’s own space oddity has traces in a Ray Bradbury short story, as well as the rapid escalation of the international space program. John’s longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin painted this portrait of an astronaut whose work life has become routine: “She packed my bags last night pre-flight / Zero hour 9 a.m.” Although he misses the Earth, and his wife, he realizes that realistically, “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids.” As with so many of John’s ’70s classics, the song is grounded by his carnival-esque piano, then augmented with an acoustic guitar line, followed by a space-sounding slide guitar and some synthesizer to sound admirably science-fiction-like for 1972. We may all dream of space, but “Rocket Man” brought the realities back to Earth: It’s lonesome, and in fact, it’s cold as hell. And just like the end of “Major Tom,” the eerie “And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time” refrain gets softer and softer as our astronaut gets farther out into space. [Gwen Ihnat]


7. Barenaked Ladies and Astronaut Chris Hadfield, “I.S.S. (Is Somebody Singing)” (2013)

Technically, any first-person song performed by Chris Hadfield would qualify for this list, seeing as he’s an actual astronaut. But the now-retired space explorer took his casual musicianship one step further in February 2013 when, while aboard the International Space Station, he performed a song he wrote with Barenaked Ladies frontman (and fellow Canadian) Ed Robertson. The video, which first aired on CBC Radio’s Q, is a sight to behold for anyone interested in space travel. As Barenaked Ladies performs with the Wexford Gleeks children choir, Hadfield communicates live via satellite transmission, Earth radiating in the window behind him while he and Robertson trade vocal and guitar duties. His cover of “Space Oddity” is also worth checking out, but it doesn’t have quite the same thrill as watching a group of musicians perform on our planet alongside someone floating above it. [Dan Caffrey]


8. The Rolling Stones, “2000 Light Years From Home” (1967)

Admittedly, it’s entirely possible that even the Stones themselves didn’t entirely get what was going on in “2000 Light Years From Home,” off the brilliant but flawed psychedelic experiment Their Satanic Majesties Request. The whole record was a bizarre lengthy ordeal in having too many drugs and no producer around to rein in the band’s excesses. But it produced some gems, and this tune, about an astronaut blasting off into space, is one of the best. The math Jagger employs might not be the most accurate—he name-checks seeing someone on Aldebaran, which is 65 light years away—but the wistful vocals about leaving Earth forever are perfectly matched with the trippy instrumentation. It’s got a skittery, driving rhythm, the better to mirror the anxiety of setting off for “a star with fiery oceans,” even though, in the end, the primary emotion is loneliness. Which is fitting, if the story about Jagger writing the lyrics in prison following his conviction on drug charges is true. Brixton Prison might just feel like outer space, especially to arguably the world’s biggest rock frontman at the time. [Alex McCown]


9. Bad Astronaut, “These Days” (2002)

The lead track off of Bad Astronaut’s aptly titled Houston: We Have A Drinking Problem, “These Days” finds founder Joey Cape layering the feelings that come with aging and having your expectations of success subverted onto that of an astronaut adrift in the bleak expanse of space. The singer, best known for fronting seminal Southern California skate punk outfit Lagwagon, is able to deftly map the idea of reality not meeting your pre-conceived notions to that of a continually failing mission in lyrics like, “Yeah, that’s the way things go somedays / How I wanted to be more / Than the man I am today” and “Just when we embarked on space / Its design came crashing down / Far from conclusion / Far from its objective.” Borrowing from space alt-rock grandaddies, Grandaddy, the track hits its creative peak (if not actual musical peak) when it eschews acoustic strumming and descends into a pit of synthesizers, drum loops, and samples meant to sound as if they’re being communicated from space’s infinite vacuum. Asking, “Are you willing to be free / Free from everyone / Free from everything?” prior to the punk-rock blowout portends the ultimate destruction of the ship and the narrator’s rose-colored suppositions. [Leonardo Adrian Garcia]


10. The Long Winters, “The Commander Thinks Aloud” (2005)

The Long Winters’ “The Commander Thinks Aloud” is written from the perspective of a shuttle commander who never gets the chance to leave space for a tragic reason: He’s the crew head of the Space Shuttle Columbia, which exploded upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere in 2003. The knowledge of this tragedy hangs over the entire song, giving devastating meaning not only to lyrics such as “Can you feel it, we’re almost home” and “Put your jackets on / I feel we’re being born,” but to its musical flourishes as well. Early on, John Roderick employs a wordless vocal downward spiral to exacerbate the dirge-like song’s sadness; later, plodding piano eventually gives way to a burst of glittering keyboards, which crescendo to Roderick repeating the line, “The crew compartment’s breaking up.” No matter how you slice it, it’s a terribly desperate and grief-stricken song that highlights the dangerous side of space travel. [Annie Zaleski]


11. The Dentists, “Space Man” (1994)

Given how often astronauts can be heard complaining about the isolation of being in space, it’s a breath of fresh air—or at least a breath of air that hasn’t been re-circulated too many times—to find a song where the narrator is actually begging for some alone time. “These claustrophobic friends of mine are closing in around my mind,” complains the spaceman, who repeatedly asks, “Does anybody know how to get away?” At one point he dreams of a perfect world where he’s built a box that’s 10 miles wide and ensconced himself within its walls, a location where, “You can turn around and see / Two’s a crowd and one is company.” Although the purpose of his trip is to find a place “to leave the crowded world behind,” his frustration remains intact all the way through to the final words of the song, when he bemoans, “I can’t seem to get away from you.” [Will Harris]


12. Alien Sex Fiend, “Drive My Rocket Up Uranus” (1994)

With all things, there is a time when subtlety is appropriate, but Alien Sex Fiend has yet to find that time. Granted, that’s not wholly surprising when you consider the name, but this song has a title that—to borrow a phrase from Dave Edmunds—is about as subtle as a flying mallet. Then again, perhaps the narrator’s carburetor really is clogged, since he does make the particular complaint, “Now we are lost in space.” Still, the added notation to “drive my rocket up Uranus, baby, till it hurts” does seem just a bit too spot-on for comfort. [Will Harris]


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