Life on Mars?
by Davie Bowie
"To the girl with the mousy hair"
Some have said that the word "mousy" connects the girl to representations of communists as mice later in the song.Deep Thought
This interpretation is probably the result of trying too hard. "Mousy hair" colloquially refers to drab, plain hair color. In that sense, "the girl with the mousy hair" is a plain Jane—a kind of ordinary "everygirl."
"Sailors / Fighting in the dancehall / Oh man! / Look at those cavemen go / It's the freakiest show / Take a look at the lawman"
This is a rundown of the clichéd, nonsense tropes that fill many Hollywood movies. Perhaps unsurprisingly, nearly four decades after Bowie wrote "Life on Mars?" our movies are still mostly full of the same kind of stuff.Deep Thought
The chorus is comprised of what the girl sees on the screen (sailors, cavemen, lawmen) and her reactions to them ("It's the freakiest show"). You get the sense that the girl is trapped in these tropes. Remember, she's "lived it ten times or more," perhaps becoming completely jaded and tired of these images… but they're all she has because they're all that anyone writes.
"Is there life on Mars?"
Bowie's delivery of this line is one of his most distinct and familiar, and it leaves behind the rest of the chorus in a way that's grammatically confusing. What's the context?Deep Thought
The question of how to read this line is a matter of great debate among Bowie fans. The "girl with the mousy hair" could be crying out "Is there life on Mars?" because she can't really identify with the "freakiest show" of the Earth in the movies. It's, then, a plea for escape to another planet. "Mars" doesn't have to be the actual planet. The Earth of the movies is so dead in terms of excitement ("the film is a sadd'ning bore") that it may as well be a Martian landscape. Heard this way, the frustrated girl is wondering if there's anything original to be seen in the world of cinema. Or, if you prefer a completely different interpretation, perhaps "Is there life on Mars?" could be the title of the "best selling show" of the previous line, alluding to our cinematic fascination with Martians and this idea of searching for something where it most likely isn't.
"Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow"
Try picturing this metaphor. Pretty gross, huh? Many have heard this as a critique of the supposed transformation of Disney from an all-American company into a sprawling capitalist enterprise.Deep Thought
More generally, though, Mickey Mouse's transfiguration is a symbol for the transformation of all American dreams and icons. Though Disney's reputation was never greatly impacted by the 1941 animator's strike (see next line) or critics' charges that the company puts out formulaic cartoons, Disney nonetheless failed to live up to the high expectations many people had for its animation. (Some spoke of animation—particularly Disney's earlier works—as they spoke of jazz: this art form was to be America's gift to the world.)
"Now the workers have struck for fame"
In 1941, animators at the "mouse factory" went on strike to demand better wages, treatment, and respect from Disney.Deep Thought
In 1947, Walt Disney stood before the House Committee of Un-American Activities and accused the leader of the strike, Herb Sorrell, of being a communist agitator seeking to strengthen communist power in Hollywood. While Bowie's lyrics emphasize the supposed communist nature of the strike, Disney's charges were eventually dropped. However, according to conservative historian Peter Schweizer, documents released from Soviet archives following the collapse of the USSR in 1991 reveal that that Herb Sorrell was indeed a communist spy—though this allegation is far from undisputed.
"'Cause Lennon's on sale again"
John Lennon's first post-Beatles album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, featured the popular anthem "Working Class Hero," which had its own socialist themes.Deep Thought
Bowie is actually making fun of the image behind "Working Class Hero"—an image of John Lennon leading a proletarian uprising. Remember, "Lennon's on sale again"—as in, this idea of revolution is simply a reaction to a product people are being sold rather than a response to what they actually believe. Or you could choose to hear "Lennon" as "Lenin" (as in communist revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Lenin), which is certainly a convenient homonym. In either case, the sense of people literally buying into ideas rather than deeply believing them prevails. This line also gives you a confused sense of time—the animator's strike was in 1941, Lennon's "Working Class Hero" was released in 1970, and Lenin's October Revolution was in 1919. What this does is take these specific events and abstract them into symbols of worker fervor.
"From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads"
Ibiza is an island off the coast of Spain. The Norfolk Broads are a lattice of lakes and rivers on the east coast of England.Deep Thought
These locations seem somewhat arbitrary on their own, but when you take the chunk of land between them into consideration, you'll find you have a fairly representational image of Western Europe—with Ibiza as a geographically western extreme, and the longitude of the Norfolk Broads roughly drawing the eastern border of France. If you overlay this geography with Bowie's image of communist "mice and their million hordes," the idea of a proletarian revolution appears once again, dissolving the market economies of Western Europe. It's also worth noting that, at the time, a monarch ruled Ibiza and Britain still has a queen.
"Rule, Britannia!" is a patriotic anthem composed by Thomas Arne in 1740, putting music to James Thompson's poem of the same name.Deep Thought
Likely for melodic reasons, Bowie alters the meter of the title by omitting the comma and the exclamation mark. The title of the song should have an initial stress on "Rule," and then another stress on "-tan." Instead, we don't have a stress on "Rule" because "Rule Brit—" are what we call pick-up notes in the line, which begins on the chord change at "-tannia."
"'Cause I wrote it ten times or more"
Notice the shift in point of view to first person, from the pre-chorus third person.Deep Thought
It's useful here to remember the history of this song. Bowie originally wrote English lyrics to the French easy-listener "Comme d'habitude," in the form of "Even a Fool Learns to Love." Subsequently Paul Anka (of "Diana" fame) bought the rights to the French song and rewrote it as "My Way"—blocking Bowie's earlier adaptation while also creating one of Frank Sinatra's best-known songs. "Life on Mars?" is not only a reimagining of "Comme d'habitude," then; it's also Bowie's response to Anka, who could be said to have merely been following Bowie's lead in writing "My Way." Is Bowie ironically criticizing himself for recycling old material, or taking a subtle dig at Anka and Sinatra for muscling him out of "Even a Fool Learns to Love"? Or some combination of both?