And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear…
Earlier this week in writing about Labyrinth, I mentioned that I had read somewhere that some fans of the movie only know Bowie through his role as Jarreth the Goblin King. I understand the concept but had never actually encountered anyone that fits that description. Then I came across this delightful video, which is an episode of a YouTube show by professional singer Elizabeth Zharoff in which she analyzes popular music songs from the perspective of a classically trained opera singer. It turns out that Zharoff’s YouTube page has a huge following, and I enjoyed this so much that I can now be counted as a follower. Anyway, the premise of this video starts with, “Outside of Labyrinth, I know nothing about David Bowie…” There is it.
The video speaks for itself and is worth watching. It’s like watching someone eating ice cream for the first time. Her reaction is so joyous that it makes me jealous. Bowie released “Space Oddity” the year I was born. It has essentially been part of ther soundtrack of my life. It is so present for me that it has become part of the background. Along with “Heroes,” it is probably one of the great Bowie songs I kind of take for granted. How Zharoff was able to walk through life without encountering this song is a mystery to me, but good for her. I can’t remember the first time I heard “Space Oddity,” but I wish I could, and this video allows me to imagine what it was like.
So what does all this have to do with the lyrics series, and specifically the line I included at the start of this post? Well, the video got me really listening to the song and that got me thinking about how much Bowie telegraphed his future themes in “Space Oddity.” And there’s a lot. To begin with, Bowie begins his love affair with double meanings. A long-held interpretation of the song is that it is really about heroin— the countdown and explosion of sound, followed by the description of floating out in space replicates the experience of shooting up. Bowie may have modeled the effect after the 1967 Velvet Underground’s song, “White Light/White Heat,” which he would cover for much of the rest of his career, which supposedly is a musical representation of the sensation of injecting speed. I almost hate to mention this in case of disappointing Zharoff, who heard “Space Oddity” as being about human evolution. But Bowie encouraged listeners to hear what they wanted into his music. He liked allowing for alternate interpretations of his songs and even lines or words in his songs. Later, he’d play with multiple meanings of words like, “star” (for instance, within the Ziggy Stardust album or within the song, “The Stars Are Out Tonight”). He’d tease fans into thinking “Loving the Alien” is about space aliens (it isn’t). He’d eerily sing in “Dollar Days,” “I’m dying to”— or is he singing “I’m dying too”?
In most of these cases, it’s up to the listener to decide. But Bowie confirms that the heroin interpretation of “Space Oddity” is at least valid, in the 1980 song, “Ashes to Ashes,” in which the lead character of “Space Oddity” (“a guy…from such an early song”) turns out to be a “junky, strung out in Heaven’s high, hitting an all time low”).
Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do
I recalled Leah Kardos discussing Bowie’s use of the color blue in her excellent book, Blackstar Theory. The way I remembered it, Kardos ran through a litany of examples of the color’s appearance in Bowie’s songs and discussed its possible meaning. But when I went back to the book, I found that she had written something slightly different— that blue appeared throughout the play Lazarus. The litany of examples of things blue went well beyond Bowie’s use of the color, and that she had actually quoted Taneja Stark in observing, “a quest for water…symbolic of a spiritual thirst, is a recurring symbol of Bowie’s catalogue.” Well, the reason planet Earth is blue is because it is covered with water. Major Tom sees his home world as blue because he is moving further and further away. If the quest for water is a spiritual thirst, Bowie’s description of moving away from water suggests spiritual detachment, which is consistent with what’s happening in “Space Oddity.”
But I really think I remember Leah Kardos saying more about the color blue. It might have been in an interview. I remember her mentioning more of Bowie’s uses of the color, including “that’s the color of my room” in “Sound and Vision” and eyes that were “blue, but nobody home” in “Scary Monsters.” There are many other examples. So, I don’t know if the idea came from Kardos or my own head, but Bowie uses the color blue again and again to evoke detachment and isolation. Isolation is surely one of the themes of “Space Oddity,” but even by Bowie’s own later admission one of the themes of his entire output. The only color mentioned that Major Tom sees as he drifts into space is blue, which we can imagine amidst the blackness of space, otherwise punctuated with white stars. Bowie uses black and white, or just the lack of color during his Thin White Duke tour, which was called the Isolar Tour, followed two years later by the Isolar II tour which featured a stark stage, framed by fluorescent tube lights. “Isolar” can translate into “isolate.”
“Space Oddity” is the first of Bowie’s songs to associate space with this combination of isolation and absence of sensation. Space is oddly comforting, not by the addition of pleasurable stimuli but by the removal of unpleasant stimuli. Major Tom retreats into space, alone but unmolested. Bowie closed the circle on this theme with “Blackstar,” one of his final songs. The actual lyrics of “Blackstar” are more oblique than those of “Space Oddity,” but Bowie drives the point home in the video, which features the skeletal remains of an astronaut, apparently located on some remote planet or asteroid. Death is the ultimate isolation.
And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear
Which brings us back to this line, which hints at why Major Tom wants to get away. This one line contains quite a bit of information. Bowie would always be disgusted by the banal. While he sought fame and popular acclaim — after all, he was a performer, he embraced his own difference. He kept changing styles in part so as not to become a caricature of himself because he didn’t want attention for the wrong reasons.
Only recently did I realize that this line gives a pretty obvious nod to the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” in which a man comes on the radio, telling the narrator useless information, trying to fry his imagination, such as…”how white my shirts can be.” There we are again with shirts. But Mick Jagger doesn’t do anything about it. All he does is complain that he can’t get no satisfaction. Think about that song, though, two of the song’s three versus are about hearing banal advertisements on the radio. Major Tom’s solution is to flee the planet entirely. In fact, if you think about it, Ground Control is a man coming on the radio. “Space Oddity” is not a ripoff of “Satisfaction,” but it’s the same idea.
The theme comes up again and again in Bowie songs, and so too do “the papers” and, more broadly, “the news.” Bowie sings, in “Its No Game,” “Put a bullet in my brain; and it makes all the papers.” In “Modern Love,” he sings, “I catch the paper boy, but things don’t really change.” “Five Years,” a song about the end of the world, opens with, “News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in.” Bowie would later explain that the reference to “the news” carried by All the Young Dudes was that news (I’m not sure I believe him, but that’s what he said). In the middle of “Young Americans,” Bowie references a Beatles song when his backup singers proclaim, “I heard the news today, oh boy.” In case you never actually listened to the lyrics of “Young Americans,” much like “Modern Love,” it isn’t as happy as it sounds. In short, whenever Bowie mentions the news media, it ain’t good.
The papers line also hints at Bowie’s complex relationship with fame. He wants to be a rock and roll star in, “Star,” but clearly struggles with the concept of fame in, “Fame.” This paradox appears less frequently in Bowie’s songs as it does in his life, especially his later life, when he took a decade-long hiatus from rock stardom to recover from health issues and begin raising a daughter. And even after he came back with The Next Day, he did not return to touring and assumed his most remote and mysterious persona yet.
Finally, and perhaps most obviously, “Space Oddity” is Bowie’s first space song. While much less of his music is about space than you might think (he goes entire albums without mentioning anything having to do with space), he kept returning to the theme though his very latest works.
So it turns out Elizabteh Zharoff chose a great song if she wanted to delve into a David Bowie she only previously knew from Labyrinth. It not only stands up on its own, but there’s probably no better road map for what’s to come.
Elizabeth Zharoff’s show is called The Charismatic Voice. In addition to a YouTube page, she has a web page, which you can link to here.