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Divine Symmetry I 19 I “Mrs. Major Tom” by K.I.A./Shinjuku Zulu (2002)

Two weeks ago, I included as part of this series a post about Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom (Coming Home),” which describes the same events as Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” I remain a little baffled about the exact point of that song. Here’s another one that once again is about the same sequence of events– Major Tom leaves Earth and drifts off into space. But in this case, the song focuses on the perspective of Major Tom’s wife. The unnamed wife gets a mention in Bowie’s original song– Major Tom says to Ground Control to tell his wife that he loves her before he escapes into eternity. She’s hardly a character but more of a hint at what it is that Tom is escaping– a grounded reality that’s all too much. Bowie’s Major Tom is a coward. He doesn’t want to confront the harried realities of Earth– notoriety, marriage, work. These are not horrific nightmares; they are more like what it means to be an adult in society. We don’t really get a description of what’s so bad about these things in the first place. Major Tom is just a guy who wants to run away from his responsibilities.

K.I.A. picks up on that to create a song– this particular version features Larissa Gomes on vocals — to turn the story into one of abandonment, not escape. Much as with Schilling’s song, this one is not musically similar to “Space Oddity” (though it has a dreamy quality) but uses some of the same words and even phrases. But that’s only to establish that we’re talking about the same situation, just from the perspective of someone else in the story. Mrs. Major Tom was the one left behind. She’s the responsibility being abandoned by the Major.

This is a sad song. The wife here laments that she thought she had been her husband’s inspiration, but that when he didn’t come back, her heart collapsed to a “black, black hole.” K.I.A. takes Bowie’s concepts and flips them around– “from ground control, to lost control.” Actually, this is part of a “from…to…” sequence that is reminiscent of anther Bowie song, “Station to Station.” Similarly, the lines, “your asteroid eyes; say you were never mine” evoke the lines from “Moonage Daydream,” “keep your ‘lectric eye on me, babe.” All of these Bowie songs are completely devoid of empathy. Major Tom can’t even bring himself to tell his wife that he’s leaving, or even that he loves her. In “Station to Station,” the narrator can’t discern love from the side effects of cocaine. “Moonage Daydream” is very self-centered — that electric eye is fixed on the narrator, and attention seems to flow only one way. Is “Mrs. Major Tom” a critique of Bowie’s entire point of view? The song concluded, “You didn’t burn up, my Major Tom. You just burnt out.” Considering the song came out in 2002, could it be directed at David Bowie himself? Was K.I.A. a frustrated fan, longing for Ziggy Stardust while Bowie himself was putting out Heathen and Reality?

Maybe not. But I think what K.I.A. did here was clever. It isn’t ripping off “Space Oddity,” it’s taking a point of commonality and considers the consequences. Maybe the electric eye was pointing in the wrong direction all along.

Interestingly, this song was covered by Sheryl Crow on a 2011 space-themed album called Seeking Major Tom, which features many artists but is credited to none other than William Shatner. I didn’t know that album existed until I discovered this song, so, with some trepidation, I’m going to listen to it and will discuss it in a future post…

The Divine Symmetry series compares Bowie songs to other songs with some sort of similarity, intentional or otherwise. The term is borrowed from Bowie’s song, “Quicksand.”

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