David Bowie Tribute: The Escapist Genius of “Life on Mars”

Passion of the Weiss takes the week to celebrate the life and mourn the death of David Bowie.
By    January 15, 2016

life on mars

Peter Holslin’s favorite Spielberg movie is E.T.

Read the rest of POW’s David Bowie Tributes here

It amazes me just how much sound and feeling David Bowie is able to fit into “Life on Mars.” It’s an epic in just under four minutes, a Frank Sinatra ballad reimagined as a surrealist dreamscape. The recording off his 1971 landmark Hunky Dory cascades through the ups and downs of an alienated life — from the depths of a broken heart pounds a mega-sized orchestra hit, and then it builds and builds into a chorus of strings that reach into the heavens. The melancholy guitar solo, the Rick Wakeman piano, the ’70s synth like a signal broadcast from Mars itself — all of this pounding through your headphones, capturing in miniature what some people feel in lifetimes.  

I’ve been thinking about this song a lot lately. As I’ve struggled to make my own life as a writer and journalist over the past eight years, I’ve often felt that sensation of being alone and adrift. I’ve been on some amazing, surreal adventures, but I’ve also felt like an outsider looking in, wandering through my “sunken dream” and longing to be somewhere far, far away. “Sailors fighting in the dance hall / Oh man look at those cavemen go,” Bowie sings. He might as well be talking about music writers and arcane subtweets.

The beautiful thing about Bowie, of course, is that he’s helped us all feel a little less alone. Just consider the perspective you get in “Life on Mars?” — there’s the girl who’s “hooked to the silver screen,” watching a film that she’s lived “ten times or more.” She’s on the outside looking in, gazing at a world that doesn’t make any fucking sense. But then there’s the rest of us; the audience of the song, experiencing it together with her. Bowie serves up his surreal imagery and suddenly we see it in our mind’s eye. For four minutes we’re also outsiders looking in, gazing at the “freakiest show”: The mice in their million hordes, the lawman beating up the wrong guy. Turn the song around and it becomes a reminder that there are a lot of people in this world who feel just as much like an outsider as you do.

Bowie emerged during a watershed time in American culture; the Stonewall riots happened the same year as “Space Oddity.” Hippies were expanding their minds with LSD while government distrust was at an all time high because of Vietnam and Watergate. Now we’re in the middle of a whole new era, where all of that disillusionment and despair has come back a thousand fold. Our assumptions have been shattered as Americans’ sense of security has given way to paranoia and our cultural heroes have died tragically (see: Robin Williams) or been revealed as predators (Bill Cosby). Yet with that has also come hope and promise. Voices and perspectives once ignored or misunderstood are now being amplified like never before. Cameraphones capture the crimes of the police. Gay marriage has the support of the White House.

I was completely shocked the night I heard Bowie died. But in the past few days, I’ve come to accept it. People will always feel alienated and marginalized in this world, some much more than others. But there are a lot of people nowadays who aren’t on the outside looking in as they used to be. Many are still thinking about and maybe even longing for life on Mars. But Bowie did his part. He helped pave the way through his songs, his look, and most of all his point of view. Now his work on this planet is done.

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