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"Life on Mars?" was released in 1971 on David Bowie's album Hunky Dory, and later became a single in 1973. It has often been considered Bowie's best song.
While it never hit #1 on the charts like "Let's Dance" ("Life on Mars?" peaked at #3), it features prominently in the "Best Song Ever" lists that critics make every now and then. Artists ranging from Barbara Streisand to the Flaming Lips to the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain have covered it. The BBC called it "one of the oddest hit singles ever," and it's hard to argue with that.
In fact, it could be argued that "Life on Mars?" epitomizes what David Bowie was in the 1970s: weird.
The question you might be asking as you listen to the song (or to David Bowie in general) is, "Why is this so great—but so weird?" What sets Bowie apart in such a way that his music has this label of weirdness that other equally innovative artists' music doesn't have? Within the song, the most obvious bit of strangeness is how Bowie's sharp—yet surreal—lyrical critique of uninteresting, bloated pop culture plays ironically against the song's own sonic extravagance, featuring chords lifted directly from Frank Sinatra's "My Way."
In the history embedded in the lyrics and in the history of the song itself is evidence that little or none of what Bowie does in "Life on Mars?" is new. His originality and his strangeness, then, can only come from playing familiar elements against each other. Bowie's using the very culture he's parodying in ironic celebration of itself, transcending it in the process.
This is something that Bowie did consistently throughout his career. He constantly straddled cultural boundaries, transcending categories to become something else altogether: Man or woman, human or alien, pop shlop or intellectual gruel, 1970 Bowie or 1980 Bowie. It worked well for Bowie, but we have to keep in mind that the androgynous, post-Ziggy Stardust David Bowie of the 1973 promotional video for "Life on Mars?" is not who Bowie was as a person.
A small hop back in time to the original "Space Oddity" video reveals a more conventional character. And looking ahead even just a few years, we find experiments in soul and Philly Jazz. Beginning with The Man Who Sold the World in 1970, Bowie began creating these identities and was always sort of an embodiment of the sheer creative energy that being unconventional and without category can produce.
If Bowie is remixing older concepts in "Life on Mars?" then we should first identify his source material.
His vague dissatisfaction with "lawmen" (read "The Man") and the anti-patriotism of "Rule Britannia" (a British nationalist anthem) positions Bowie squarely within the countercultural movement of the '60s and '70s. His usage of Mickey Mouse (in "Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow") as an emblem of capitalist sprawl is particularly helpful in identifying Bowie as a member of the intellectual left. The line, "Now the workers have struck for fame," could be a reference to the Disney animators' strike of 1941. While the strike didn't affect the public's relationship with Disney very much, it earned Disney the cold shoulder of leftist critics who would thereafter call Disney the "mouse factory."
That criticism contains two crucial perspectives: a Marxist point of view, and an anti-consumerist point of view. Given the proletarian aesthetic created by Bowie's invocation of workers striking for fame, John Lennon (or V.I. Lenin), and "the mice in their million hordes," it may sound easy to call "Life on Mars?" a Marxist, anti-capitalist song—but it's not that simple.
Bowie definitely sounds like a Marxist when he sings about striking workers, "lawmen beating up the wrong guy," and the "mice in their million hordes" sweeping over Western Europe ("from Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads"). But the song also contains criticism of the most basic idea of worker revolution. Whether or not you hear Bowie's lyric as "Lenin" (the Russian communist leader) or "Lennon" (the British singer of "Working Class Hero"), the line "Now the workers have struck for fame / 'Cause Lennon's on sale again" takes a dig at the quasi-revolutionary pretensions of other '60s leftists.
Lives and ideas have become so commoditized that revolution, like everything else, has even become just another brand. It's clear that social action here is a response to a market condition—"on sale"—and not a response to real convictions. Put simply, Bowie is saying that the notion that John Lennon—or V.I. Lenin, for that matter—could spur the masses to revolution in 1971 is completely dependent upon Lennon's/Lenin's ability to sell himself. In that sense, the very idea of socialism in the West has become a commodity. Therefore, nothing will happen—it's all been done before.
There aren't any original ideas in mainstream culture, to the point where the people's hope for change is at best a response to being sold a song that's been sung time and again. That sentiment is in the Disney reference, too; the animators' strike in 1941 was a huge turning point in the company's history. It marked, more or less, the ultimate transformation of Disney's animation from art into product. The familiar Disney color palette of the '40s and '50s films Alice and Wonderland, Peter Pan, and others is, to some critics, a symbol of the lack of willpower within the Disney empire to push animation boundaries because it's cheaper and safer to put out more of the same.
But Bowie doesn't just aim his barbs at Walt Disney. Looking at the origins of the song, it would seem that Bowie himself is of these "fools" who keeps writing a song that's been sung.
"Life on Mars?" has its origins in "Comme d'habitude," a crooner song written by Claude François and Jacques Revaux in 1967. Written first in English, and then in French, "Comme d'habitude" was released in 1968 and found its way into the English-speaking ears of David Bowie and Paul Anka. Bowie was asked to write another set of English lyrics to the song, and he came up with "Even a Fool Learns to Love." To Bowie's dismay, however, the song's rights were bought by Anka, who wrote yet another set of English lyrics to the tune, calling it "My Way." "My Way" then became a famous Frank Sinatra anthem.
According to the BBC, "Life on Mars?" was an inspired parody of "My Way," written in frustration at losing out on the rights to such a well-received song. The evidence is there in the music; "Life on Mars?" has the same descending chord structure as "My Way"—it has just been lifted up a few keys (a minor third) and many of the melody lines are similar.
The narrative of the song describes the same thing. The song begins with "the girl with the mousy hair" at some "God-awful small affair," when she then imagines her way (in "her sunken dream") into—where else—a movie theater. As she sits in "the seats with the clearest view" and we move into the chorus of the song, she frustratingly sits through scenes she's "lived ten times before"—"Sailors / Fighting in a dance hall," "cavemen," etc. Ironically, those boring images give David Bowie his chorus. Those images compromise the melodic hook of the song, and the lyrics are sung with what Bowie would later describe as "middle class ecstasy."
So, what's going on?
Bowie isn't quite boring and anti-pop enough to agree with the "girl with the mousy hair"—whom he later called an "anomic heroine"—but he obviously sympathizes with her boredom. This ironic disparity between the obvious possibilities/realities of cultural boredom and the manner with which Bowie seemingly endorses the dribble and cliché of Western culture is important—it means that you can't really say Bowie was either a leftist critic or a dime-a-dozen pop artist.
You can call Bowie a postmodernist in the way that his reaction against pop culture was to use it against itself, but it's important to also say that Bowie was a popular artist, too. While David Bowie always publicly said that he was strictly about art, his art was one that required being accessible and engaging; Bowie was simultaneously a critic and a creator of pop culture.
Unlike the little girl, Bowie can see the banalities of our culture and still have fun with them. He toys with our notions of acceptable and unacceptable and takes them to extremes—he identifies cultural boundaries with the intention of crossing and confusing them. The way these elements synthesize made Bowie a very popular and influential shock artist and ironist. But unlike other subversive rock icons of the Bowie-led "glam-rock" era such as Alice Cooper, Bowie was always rebellious and campy in a non-violent, even fun way.
While Bowie was often more intellectual and artistic than his fellow glam-rockers, he was—in this single frame of his career—just as much about being a hyper-affected, theatric, and sexual being.