Study Guide

Life on Mars? Technique

  • Music

    There's quite a bit of interesting musical history behind "Life on Mars?" 

    The song is a parody of the famous Frank Sinatra hit "My Way," which was written by Paul Anka. Before Anka wrote "My Way," David Bowie had already written his own set of English lyrics to the same tune, originally a French song called "Comme d'habitude." Frustrated that "My Way" had crowded out his composition "Even a Fool Learns to Love," Bowie penned "Life on Mars?" as a kind of parody. Thus, "Life on Mars?" rocks out to the same chords as "My Way." 

    The only differences are some chord inversions and the fact that "Life on Mars?" is in a different key. The chord progression is your classic descending jazz chord progression. 

    But—you'll notice—this song is anything but classic jazz. The song plays as a radio-friendly Broadway finale, not unlike songs featured in the 1973 rock musicals Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar (disregarding the lyrics, of course). Two distinctive features of the song, the guitar solos and the string arrangement, are guitarist Mick Ronson's inventions. And then there's David Bowie's voice. Against the deeper orchestral hits in the chorus (on "Sailors," "lawman," and "Mars?"), Bowie belts out notes at the very edge of his vocal range. (They're B flats, if you wanted to know. As one's voice naturally deepens with age, Bowie no longer sings these notes quite so high.) 

    The effect is that Bowie's voice harmonizes with the much lower notes of the orchestration to create a huge, full, and powerful chord on those notes.

  • Calling Card

    Intellectual Lyrics

    Throughout David Bowie's career, he was well known for the intellectual depth of his songs, and was called everything from a postmodern artist to an "auteur." "Life on Mars?" is very complicated thematically, and much of that depth comes from various shifts in the lyrics that, while subtle, offer a lot to interpret. 

    Take the narrative shift from the first pre-chorus to the second pre-chorus. Here's the first pre-chorus:

    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

    For she's lived it ten times or more
    She could spit in the eyes of fools
    As they ask her to focus on

    Now here's the second pre-chorus.

    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

    Notice how in the first pre-chorus it's assumed that the makers of the movie she's imagining watching are the "fools" who've given her the same thing "ten times or more." In the second pre-chorus we shift to the first-person; now it's the narrative voice—Bowie himself—who "wrote it ten times or more" and is about to write it again. 

    What does this shift offer? We have Bowie indicting himself as a writer who produces the same stuff over and over again, where earlier Bowie called authors who do that "fools." How does Bowie get away with calling himself a fool? Another stimulating line in "Life on Mars?" is the chorus ending: "Is there life on Mars?" What does it mean, and who's speaking, and in what way? A way of interpreting the lyric is that the "girl with the mousy hair"—whom Bowie has called "anomic" (alienated and socially disoriented)—can't find anything to connect with in the torrent of images she encounters daily on Earth. "Is there life on Mars?" then becomes an escapist plea and a hope that there's life somewhere else in the universe that she can connect with, at least. 

    Or the line could be rhetorical. The chorus is a sort of call and response between the images of the "silver screen" and the girl's reactions ("Look at those cavemen go / It's the freakiest show"). The question may be identifying Earth itself as a kind of Martian environment in the sense that our cultural tropes are so alien to her—not to mention dead in the sense that they're overused and uninteresting to the girl. 

    Another option, perhaps syntactically more solid that those other two interpretations, is that the phrase "Is there life on mars?" is the object of the sentence:

    Take a look at the lawman
    Beating up the wrong guy
    Oh man!
    Wonder if he'll ever know
    He's in the bestselling show
    Is there life on Mars?

    Meaning that the "bestselling show" is entitled "Is there life on Mars?" In this sense the recycling of old ideas in pop culture becomes a sort of spectacle of the failure for authors/producers to find meaning ("life") in a barren waste of overused images ("Mars").

  • Songwriting

    Homophony

    Often, authors and lyricists will use homophones—words that sound the same as other words that mean something completely different—to give additional meanings to phrases. An excellent example is the line "The shops in mourning" from Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood. "Mourning" could either be heard as "mourning" as in grieving, or as "morning" as in the time of day. 

    When David Bowie sings, "Now the workers have struck for fame / 'Cause Lennon's on sale again," he employs a homophone in his use of "Lennon." It can either refer to John Lennon, who released "Working Class Hero" in 1970, or to Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the leader of the October Revolution way back in 1917. Interestingly, while the two men occupy vastly different roles in history, in this case, they both reinforce a single meaning in the song rather than give two completely different interpretations. Both names evoke socialist revolution in some way. In "Working Class Hero," John Lennon casts himself as the leader of a proletarian revolution:

    And you think you're so clever and classless and free,
    But you're still f-----g peasants as far as I can see
    [...]
    A working class hero is something to be.
    If you want to be a hero well just follow me.

    And a proletarian revolution was, of course, exactly what Vladimir Ilyich Lenin led in Russia in 1917. The international communist movement that Lenin inspired eventually reached all the way into Walt Disney's studios—the 1941 animators' strike was led by communist agitators. While their names are (slightly) different, Lennon and Lenin both evoke the same sense of socialist revolution in "Life on Mars?" This makes the lines from the second verse highly focused on a single theme while still allowing for multiple interpretations. 

    The literary theorist Umberto Eco has said that the best texts allow for multiple interpretations and act as "fields of meaning." Interestingly, Bowie's second verse acts as a "field of meaning" while remaining focused under the umbrella idea of the commoditization of socialism.