Let's have a think about David Bowie's "Life on Mars?"

Discussion in 'Music Corner' started by onlyconnect, Mar 17, 2016.

  1. onlyconnect

    onlyconnect The prose and the passion Thread Starter

    Location:
    Winchester, UK
    Bowie's great "Life on Mars?" (candidate for his best song though let's not get into that) shares a characteristic with Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, another much-loved track: the lyrics are fantastically obscure.

    It's a God awful small affair
    To the girl with the mousey hair
    But her mummy is yelling, "No!"
    And her daddy has told her to go
    But her friend is no where to be seen
    Now she walks through her sunken dream
    To the seats with the clearest view
    And she's hooked to the silver screen
    But the film is a sadd'ning bore
    For she's lived it ten times or more
    She could spit in the eyes of fools
    As they ask her to focus on

    Sailors, Fighting in the dance hall
    Oh man! Look at those cavemen go
    It's the freakiest show
    Take a look at the lawman
    Beating up the wrong guy
    Oh man! Wonder if he'll ever know
    He's in the best selling show
    Is there life on Mars?

    It's on America's tortured brow
    That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow
    Now the workers have struck for fame
    'Cause Lennon's on sale again
    See the mice in their million hordes
    From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads
    Rule Britannia is out of bounds
    To my mother, my dog, and clowns
    But the film is a sadd'ning bore
    'Cause I wrote it ten times or more
    It's about to be writ again
    As I ask you to focus on

    Sailors, Fighting in the dance hall
    Oh man! Look at those cavemen go
    It's the freakiest show
    Take a look at the lawman
    Beating up the wrong guy
    Oh man! Wonder if he'll ever know
    He's in the best selling show
    Is there life on Mars?


    Still, while Queen's effort may veer towards pomp and nonsense I have nothing but respect for Bowie's lyrical craftsmanship. I think we will struggle to make perfect narrative sense of the song (especially the second verse) but nevertheless there may be some insights to be had.

    The first thought I'd like to offer is that the song has more in common with Comme D'Habitude / My Way than I first realised. The original song, entitled Pour Moi ("For Me") was written by Gilles Thibaut (lyrics) and Jacques Revaux (music) and offered to singer Claude François. The lyrics and music were adapted by all three, renamed Comme D'Habitude (rough translation, "As Usual"), and the song became a break-up song related to the ending of the relationship between François and the young Eurovision winner France Gall.

    Comme D'Habitude describes a relationship near is end; he is still in love but they see little of one another as he goes to work before she gets up ("Quietly I leave the house. Everything is grey outside. As usual") and is in bed before she returns. "All alone, I'll go and lie down in this big cold bed, as usual". They make love but he is "playing at pretending".

    Bowie translated the song as Even a Fool learns to Love, but François rejected his lyrics. His version is also about a relationship gone sour, but tells the whole story, about a man who is the life and soul of the party ("a fool"), meets a girl, falls in love ("a clown and an angel so much in love"), but the joke "turns stale" and the time when even a fool learns to love becomes a "sour time".

    Now comes "Life on Mars?" which while not exactly a relationship song shares this sense of discontent with life and reflection upon it.

    Actually the opening lines do suggest a relationship "a godawful small affair", one that is unacceptable to mum and dad. The girl goes out, like the man in Comme D'Habitude, into a grey and sad world. Her friend (boy or girl?) cannot be found.

    Bowie's song then departs from the script, exploding into a kaleidoscope of images as the mousy-haired girl stares at the cinema screen. Yet this does not rescue her: she sees clearly that the fantasy world of entertainment will do nothing to change the greyness of her world. Mickey Mouse is not a real friend; he grows up "a cow" and whatever that means it is not flattering.

    The song becomes surreal as Bowie plays with reality. The girl is watching the film. The girl is living the film. The girl's life is a film. The girl, or the narrator, wrote the film. The film is being "writ again" as we are trapped in our humdrum lives.

    Is there Life on Mars? Wait a moment, how did Mars get into this song? Bowie is playing with us of course. Let's look at a few shades of meaning:

    2001 A Space Odyssey, part inspiration for Space Oddity, "look at those cavemen go". The film's central character goes to Jupiter not Mars, but hey, it's all space; and like Space Oddity, inner space as much as outer space. Is there life there? Maybe, but it's pretty desolate.

    Life on Mars is a B movie too, cheap sci-fi. It's escapism but not life, not real life.

    Is there life on Mars? is a question of yearning, because there is no life on earth, or it seems that way in our most desolate moments.

    However you look at it, a pretty gloomy lyric. Why do we like it? Well, it is witty, it is evocative, it is mysterious; and the music absolutely soars, complete with unexpected key changes and a near-octave leap from "on" to "Mars". Like all the best music, it takes us out of ourselves to another place and makes our reality a little less grey than it was before.
     
  2. the sands

    the sands Forum Resident

    Location:
    Oslo, Norway
    To me it's a song about feeling alienated and alone. Is there life on planet earth?
     
  3. John B Good

    John B Good Forum Hall Of Fame

    Location:
    NS, Canada
    Somebody's given this more thought than I have :)

    But I always assumed (hopefully?) that Lenin was on sale again. And every time there is one of those awful shootings, I mentally see 'the lawman beating up the wrong guy again' :(
     
  4. Jim B.

    Jim B. Forum Resident

    Location:
    UK
    Wiki says:

    Bowie, at the time of Hunky Dory's release in 1971, summed up the song as "A sensitive young girl's reaction to the media." In 1997, he added "I think she finds herself disappointed with reality... that although she's living in the doldrums of reality, she's being told that there's a far greater life somewhere, and she's bitterly disappointed that she doesn't have access to it."

    In that context most of the lyrics fall into place, and the ones that don't, well Bowie was one of those writers that would just put in lines that sounded good, whether or not they made any narrative sense. When you understand that it is pointless trying to make sense of some of the lyrics and it's best just to leave them so each person has their own unique interpretation - sometimes looking at something too closely means not appreaciating it correctly.
     
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  5. onlyconnect

    onlyconnect The prose and the passion Thread Starter

    Location:
    Winchester, UK
    I have lived with this throughout my life. I would pick apart a poem, trying to discover why I like it, what it is really about. "You're spoiling it, why can't you just enjoy it" some would say to me. The answer is that *for me* it increases my enjoyment. Obviously that is not true of everyone - but I am glad we are not all the same.

    Tim
     
  6. onlyconnect

    onlyconnect The prose and the passion Thread Starter

    Location:
    Winchester, UK
    Bowie loved wordplay - never forget :)

    So my guess is that Lennon/Lenin is deliberate. Power to the people!

    There is another twist on this. In 1941 Disney's ("Mickey Mouse") animators went on strike:

    Disney animators' strike - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia »

    Not verified in the article, but I've seen it suggested that one of the workers' demands was for more animation credits at the end of cartoons. "The workers have struck for fame". Nice idea, anyway!

    Update: ah, here we are:

    "To add insult to injury, the animators weren't featured in the credits of the film, with all credit going to the owner of the studios himself, Walt Disney."

    The Disney cartoonists strike, 1941 - Sam Lowry »

    Tim
     
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  7. ajsmith

    ajsmith Forum Resident

    Location:
    Glasgow
    'Look at those Caveman Go' is a quote from The Hollywood Argyll's 'Alley Oop'. (not saying that negates the 2001 allusion, but it's the primary source for that line).

     
  8. dead of night

    dead of night Forum Resident

    Location:
    Northern Va, usa
    Introduced in this song is the theme of mice, the earth is overrun with mice, people are like hordes of mice, is there more intelligent life anywhere else?

    Even the girl is a mouse, with her "mousey hair."

    Here Bowie is playing the part of Homo Superior, looking down on men. It's a theme of the album, "I want to evolve beyond mere humanity into something better."

    "Gotta make way for the Homo Superior."

    Bowie himself is "changing his size," but never leaving the "stream" of humanity. Changes, Pretty Things and Mars form a trilogy of songs with similar themes.
     
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  9. Baron Von Talbot

    Baron Von Talbot Well-Known Member

    I guees Bowie started the lyrics in a word play manner, maybe influenced by the french poem you mention. Over the course of the writing a concept came up and the part, that seels the song is the title quote Life On Mars - a metaphor for movies and escapism. He then brings in that lawman beating up the wrong guy, probably also taken from something that was in the media that time. I find it interesting that there are 3 complete stories told in this short poem. But then it is not really a poem but a song lyric and a bunch of the content is only in here because it sounds good or fits nice within the music. As far as I know the music was first and he fine tuned the lyrics later - so it is just a song and picking it apart like you would do with a poem does not make much sense. A song lyric should be opne to many individual interpretations and most never get the meaning anyway - Bowie ain't no Dylan or Springsteen.
     
  10. Jim B.

    Jim B. Forum Resident

    Location:
    UK
    It's a good job then that you don't like The Fall as you would probably have a nervous breakdown! :)
     
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  11. onlyconnect

    onlyconnect The prose and the passion Thread Starter

    Location:
    Winchester, UK
    I do like the Fall :)

    Tim
     
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  12. dkmonroe

    dkmonroe A completely self-taught idiot

    Location:
    Atlanta
    This is exactly as I was prepared to describe the song. The girl retreats to a theater when her dad throws her out of the house and her best friend isn't around. At some point the scriptwriter takes over the story, reminding us that it is not only our lives that are humdrum, but our fantasies as well! :laugh:

    (The girl seems aware of the emptiness of the silver screen's fantasies. She could spit in the eyes of fools who offer her the same tired tropes again and again. She has a promising future as a film critic.)

    As an aside, I understand that some people have speculated that "the girl with the mousey hair" is Hermione Farthingale, Bowie's legendary star-crossed lover. However, she refutes this, saying that her hair has never been in any way "mousey!" :laugh:
     
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  13. footprintsinthesand

    footprintsinthesand Reasons To Be Cheerful Part 1

    Location:
    Haren, DM
    Promise you will leave the japanese parts in It's No Game #1 alone - not even translate - will you?
    I admire your dedication but give me the in your face raw sensation of these gems.
     
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  14. Aghast of Ithaca

    Aghast of Ithaca Forum Resident

    Location:
    Angleterre
    Interestingly (or not, as the case may be), in an episode of the BBC drama series Life On Mars, which took its title from Bowie's song, a disgruntled employee at a newspaper office takes some colleagues hostage with a firearm. When asked for his demands, he explains that he wants his life story to be printed in the newspaper.

    The workers have struck for fame?:shh:
     
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  15. dkmonroe

    dkmonroe A completely self-taught idiot

    Location:
    Atlanta
    I certainly don't see any problem with analyzing lyrics, it needn't affect other people's impressions in the least.
     
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  16. peerke

    peerke Isabelle or Sophie?

    Location:
    Belgium
    When Bowie wrote the song, in Spring 1971, Frank Sinatra was in the charts with his version of 'Comme d'habitude' as addapted by Paul Anka for Ol' Blue Eyes.
    There's a story somewhere about Bowie hearing it while riding on a bus to go and buy a shirt in the center of the town. That also explains might explain "Sailors fighting in the dance hall' as he might have seen some sailors while on his way.
     
  17. onlyconnect

    onlyconnect The prose and the passion Thread Starter

    Location:
    Winchester, UK
    Yes, the bus story is in Bowie's notes to iSelect Bowie in the newspaper on which the CD was attached. Nothing about sailors though :)

    Tim
     
  18. Rubber65

    Rubber65 Forum Resident

    I always thought that the following lyrics were political commentaries "It's on America's tortured brow, That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow" meaning that america had become an obese money grabbing capitalist fat cat and that "Now the workers have struck for fame 'Cause (Lenin) on sale again" was about communism and the injustices workers face under a communist government and he meant Lenin not Lennon. Wiki: It was here that Lenin began work on the book that became The State and Revolution, an exposition on how he believed the socialist state would develop following the proletariat revolution, and how from that point on the state would gradually wither away leaving a pure communist society. Anyway, just my thoughts about what these lyrics mean to me. I could be off.
     
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  19. onlyconnect

    onlyconnect The prose and the passion Thread Starter

    Location:
    Winchester, UK
    A interview with Bowie about "Life on Mars?"



    Mick Rock: "I don't know what it means, but it means a lot to me."

    Tim
     
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  20. eskaton

    eskaton Forum Resident

    Location:
    Pennsylvania, USA
    Chris O'Leary included this story (from the iSelect compilation liner notes as pointed out upthread) in his updated entry on "Life On Mars?" on his stupendous blog, Pushing Ahead of the Dame:

    "This song was so easy. Being young was easy. A really beautiful day in the park, sitting on the steps of the bandstand. ‘Sailors bap-bap-bap-bap-baaa-bap.’ An anomic (not a ‘gnomic’) heroine. Middle-class ecstasy. I took a walk to Beckenham High Street to catch a bus to Lewisham to buy shoes and shirts but couldn’t get the riff out of my head. Jumped off two stops into the ride and more or less loped back to the house up on Southend Road.

    Workspace was a big empty room with a chaise lounge; a bargain-price art nouveau screen (‘William Morris,’ so I told anyone who asked); a huge overflowing freestanding ashtray and a grand piano. Little else. I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon. Nice."
     
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  21. onlyconnect

    onlyconnect The prose and the passion Thread Starter

    Location:
    Winchester, UK
    Ah yes, there *were* sailors, at least imaginary ones. Thanks.

    Tim
     
  22. John B Good

    John B Good Forum Hall Of Fame

    Location:
    NS, Canada
    This thread is really messing my mind. I'm thinking sailors for sale or rent, cross-dressed lovers, and Stockhausen syndrome. Must be channeling Roger Miller :)
     
  23. DVEric

    DVEric Forum Resident

    Because of Bowie's admitted bisexuality, I always assumed this song was a love letter to Carl Sagan. To which, Sagan gave Bowie a long-winded explanation as to why he cannot reciprocate Bowie's sexual advances, which became the basis for the series Cosmos. Strange how these things evolve.
     
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  24. Pastafarian

    Pastafarian Forum Resident

    I'm disappointed that David doesn't understand what he wrote. I was 16 when the Life On Mars was MY song and it made perfect sense.
    It mirrored my take on the absurdity of human civilisation and the feeling of being disconnected. Aliens would surely shake their head in wonder?

    Mickey, Lennon & Lenin: Obviously it's all about ideas being corrupted by the failings of the human race. Mickey and corporate fat cats (has already been well covered by Rubber 65) Lennon was the paradox of a socialist being a millionaire (selling out to capitalism?). Lenin having corrupted Marxism into a Communist monster having little relationship to the ethos of it's roots.

    I think I may need to grow up as it still makes sense to me.:crazy:
     
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  25. onlyconnect

    onlyconnect The prose and the passion Thread Starter

    Location:
    Winchester, UK
    Bowie doesn't say that. Mick Rock says:

    "I would not be so presumptuous as to try and put any meaning on it. Certainly David Bowie never has as far as I know."

    I think this is a revealing comment. I don't think Bowie went out of his way to "explain" his songs to those he worked with. Probably wise. But that doesn't imply that the songs have no meaning. In fact, in the interview itself he talks about the meaning of his songs:

    "My subject matter hasn’t really changed over the years. I’m still in a way writing about life on Mars, all these years later. (Laughs). And the man who sold the world … the way that I present songs has changed a lot. And the style for each album has changed considerably. I’ll often try new rhythms and kinds of arrangements. It’s like, I want to keep writing about the same subject but my approach, it’s like I’m trying to get into it, like finding a different door each time I approach that same subject.”

    Interviewer: "and it’s about alienation?"

    Bowie: "A lot of it is. One’s interior kind of isolation as well. It doesn’t just mean one’s social isolation, it can mean how you get in contact with your own feelings. It can be quite personal in that way.”
    My own view is that he took great care over his lyrics, more so than I realised a few years back. That doesn't mean they all make narrative sense, but they are far from meaningless words put together to sound good.

    I think he knew exactly what he was trying to say.

    Tim
     
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