If the sci-fi genre had an official soundtrack, it would be 90% David Bowie, and 5% John Williams (the other 5% being a mishmash of random songs we all recognize by don’t really know who wrote). So, with his new album, ‘The Next Day’, coming out today, it seems like it’s time again to celebrate Bowie’s contributions to sci-fi. After all, just how many music artists can you really say that about?
The song that would start David Bowie on his long road to fame was ‘Space Oddity’, a little dittie about a man who goes into space and can never return.
Yes, while this song is actually about drug use, it touches on something that is very science fiction, and that is allegory. Most decent science fiction follows along two concepts: 1. Cautionary tale or 2. Allegory for current problems we are facing. Either it warns of a slippery slope or uses metaphors to describe something that is happening right now. The saga of Major Tom actually serves both concepts, but to me, it’s the allegory that Bowie uses that particularly epitomizes science fiction. He uses sci-fi to put ideas into different terms in order to make them more understandable.
And that’s what ‘Space Oddity’ is really about. In the end of the song, as Major Tom is lost to Earth, he frantically yells at ground control, “Tell my wife I love her very much”, which explains how an addict loves his/her family and friends, but still continues to chase highs despite hurting them. There is more to the song than that, but that, to me, is the most potent example.
By the way, if you weren’t sure the song was about drugs, ‘Ashes to Ashes’ should convince you. It’s a song about Major Tom serving as a cautionary tale, which is to say don’t be a space junkie.
It also gets the award for must screwed up video ever made:
And if you doubt these two songs influence our modern culture at any point, the lyrics from both songs are quoted in Venture Bros. ‘Ashes to Ashes’, as well as ‘Life on Mars’, serve as catalysts to two fantastic sci-fi/thriller/mystery series on the BBC. ‘Life on Mars’ even stars John Simm, who plays The Master in ‘Doctor Who‘.
David Bowie and the Apocalyptic:
What is science fiction without a little bit of apocalypse thrown in? We like it in our zombies and I’m here to tell you, I like it in my music.
Bowie is no stranger to writing songs about how we are all going to die, the most notable probably being ‘Time Will Crawl’, which was inspired by how he witnessed the Chernobyl disaster from afar before anyone knew what had happened, and ‘Fantastic Voyage’, which is more or less about how we are all going to die in the Cold War because of nuclear bombs. To Bowie, we were already living the apocalypse.
The most science fiction worthy of his songs about death and despair, however, is ‘Five Years’ which kicked off his iconic Ziggy Stardust era.
The concept of the song is that Earth knows that there is only five years left to live due to dwindling resources. Somehow, in four minutes and forty-three seconds, he manages to address the emotional and political changes that would happen in such a world, which is exactly what a lot of good science fiction does.
Good science fiction asks questions like, “what would happen if this happened in the future?” and creates stories that deal with something we have never dealt with. The film ‘Children of Men’ asks the question, “what would happen if we stopped having children?”, and the novel ‘On The Beach’ by Nevil Shute wondered, “What if the world had been nuked and you and your countrymen were slowly dying of radiation poisoning?” ‘Five Years’ asks a similar question and the answer is so rich it’s hard not to wish that someone would make it into a movie.
David Bowie’s Dystopias:
If Bowie’s concept album, ‘Diamond Dogs’, which is based on the book ‘1984’, is anything to go by, it’s obvious that Bowie likes his bleak futures. But there is really nothing in his career that really compares to his concept album ‘Outside’.
This album gets a lot of flak, and I’m here to tell you that half of it is truly deserved. No album should be so high concept that it involves bits and pieces of stories put into a nonlinear narrative. But really, take those out, and you have a very good industrial album that is only one-third of the original opus David Bowie wanted to make.
Still, those faults aside, ‘Outside’ would make one fantastic novel, dare I say, movie. If not either of those, it certainly should have been a Harlan Ellison short story. The subtitle to the album, by the way, is “The Ritual Art-Murder of Baby Grace Blue: A non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle”, which is pretty much describes the the thematic lines of what I wish more science fiction would go these days.
The album deals with a future where murder can be viewed as an art form. The main character is Nathan Adler, a detective who is a part of the Art Crimes division, which deals in delineating what is art and what is murder. Enter the death of Baby Grace Blue, and you have a highly disturbing story about navigating the underground world of mutilation and murder in the name of art.
Tell me you wouldn’t want to see that movie. I dare you.
Bowie’s Alien: Ziggy Stardust:
It would be wrong of me not to include Bowie’s most iconic incarnation, which is Ziggy Stardust, the omnisexual Rock god with a tragic end.
The closest we have to an actual story with narrative is ‘Velvet Goldmine’, the unabashed biography of David Bowie’s life during the Ziggy Stardust era, only it’s about someone with a totally different name but does very similar things. Replace David Bowie with Brian Slade and Ziggy Stardust with Maxwell Demon, and you’re well upon your way to avoiding copyright infringement.
‘Velvet Goldmine’, aside, actually putting Ziggy Stardust in its own context, rather than situating it in the glam of the 70s, would make a fascinating movie about hedonism and failed heroism. Better yet, all of it couched in science fiction.
The story follows Ziggy, an alien who comes to Earth to preach hope because the world is ending. In the end, he rises too far and is ultimately destroyed by his fans. It would be sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, and all about the alien and bizarre, just as the album is.
‘Loving the Alien’:
In general, what makes Bowie’s work completely about science fiction, regardless of his subject material, is his love of the alien, or rather, the “other”.
Thus, ‘Loving the Alien’, while it sounds like a science fiction tune, actually deals with love of foreign things in commentary that only Edward Said would appreciate.
‘The Next Day’:
Sadly, it doesn’t look as if his new album will return to his science fiction roots, which seems to have largely ended after the release of his album ‘Earthling’. Nevertheless, his contributions and homages to science fiction should make him a far more iconic character to those in the science fiction community.