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.