Decoding David Bowie, or: Semiotics and the Star Man

11 February 2016 | By Sign Salad
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As with any true legend, David Bowie’s recent passing sparked an outpouring of public reminiscence for his impact, both on pop culture at large and on each of our more personal histories and identities. Bowie achieved and sustained his mass appeal even while retaining his esoteric, enigmatic charisma, a rare feat for any performer. A recent, fascinating article by Ben Greenman in The New Yorker proclaims the ‘beautiful meaninglessness’ of Bowie’s cryptic lyricism and persona; yet such a perspective fails to fully acknowledge that even if Bowie himself indeed ’embraced nonsense,’ his output is embedded in a labyrinth of sign systems and media texts that confer multiple potential, valid meanings and narratives upon his works. In the poignancy of the public reaction to Bowie’s death, his formative influence and transcendence of genres, genders, discourses and identities crystallizes. One month on from Bowie’s passing, this article explores and interprets the seminal influence of one of our greatest stars.

The Performer who Fell to Earth

David Bowie is one of the most influential figures in the history of popular music. As a musician, Bowie’s repertoire includes genres as diverse as folk rock, novelty, ambient electronic, and industrial, among many others. The only uniting factor is the voice singing, yet to refer to Bowie as a ‘singer’ is reductive. While his musical role is often uncertain, as an artist Bowie is universally revered. How did this vagueness happen, and how has Bowie exploited it to achieve such broad acclaim? His changeling nature is part of Bowie’s enduring allure as an artist. Also notable, however, is the correlative growth of his influence on the music industry, and the growing distance he coded between his own music, and himself as a person.  To analyse how this happened, we must go back to the start of Bowie’s career.

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After some aborted early appearances with a variety of bands, Bowie’s breakout identity as an acoustic guitar-swinging, psychedelic pop star fit the template moulded by a number of classic singer-songwriters (Donovan, Tim Buckley, Fred Neil, Bob Dylan, etc.), and dabbling with a 12-string guitar gave him an authentically folksy air. The singer-songwriter is culturally understood as a uniquely pure artist, able to express themselves lyrically and match abstract themes to appropriate musical moods. There is limited distorting influence from others, and the resultant music is seen as a personal conduit to the writer’s soul.

In his early career, Bowie was frequently pictured with instruments (usually guitars), both in press photos and on his single and album covers, reinforcing the purity of his artistic vision, and self-identity as a lone genius creator.

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Despite this, Bowie’s flair for the theatrical (he expressed a desire to study mime, among other artistic passions) meant he appeared as an artist concerned with more than musical composition alone. In 1967, on his attempted breakthrough single ‘The Laughing Gnome’, Bowie experimented with performance, appearing on record conversing with a sped up version of himself, before he broke through exploring the story of ‘Major Tom’ on 1969’s Space Oddity. In 1972, Bowie finally figuratively disappeared from his music, becoming instead ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and establishing a gap between Bowie the artist and his own musical output.

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This semiotic contrivance, with Bowie’s reduced appearances playing instruments live, moved him towards a position of transcendence and extension beyond the traditional role of the pop star. Additionally his appearances with instruments on single and album covers, as well as in live performances, became fewer, coding an artist not connected to an instrument, and therefore not constrained by one.

While identities changed over the years, and Bowie eventually returned to performing as some semblance of himself, his musical eclecticism coded his career as a performance, more so than any of its constituent musical parts. This impression was enhanced by Bowie’s acting career, beginning in 1976 with his appearance in ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’, and continuing through films such as ‘Labyrinth’, and ‘Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.’
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While Bowie’s links to the music at the heart of his creative output became less tangible through his numerous stylistic and identity reinventions, Bowie’s recruitment of notable collaborators- such as Brian Eno, Trent Reznor, Nile Rodgers, and Stevie Ray Vaughan- to help fill in the musical space increasingly coded Bowie as a kind of ‘meta-artist,’ orchestrating and overseeing the output of employed expert craftsmen.

On his last album Blackstar, for example, the list of collaborators and assistants is extensive. Listening to the album, it is often difficult to pinpoint Bowie’s musical contributions, yet this is nonetheless decidedly his album. Subsequent analyses of everything from the album art, lyrics, and the music video for ‘Blackstar’ subsequent to his death signify an ingrained cultural understanding of David Bowie as an artist with strong control over all elements of his output. As we’ve seen, David Bowie’s growing interest as an artist is correlated not only with his increasing variety of musical offerings, but also with the distance he achieves between himself and the musical output. He has moved semiotically through roles as composer, performer, and conductor, to finally become, through his passing, a transcendent musical deity.

Mark Lemon

Tracing Major Tom: Bowie’s Use of the Space Metaphor

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Throughout much of David Bowie’s work runs a thread of ironic disillusionment with the same popular culture in which his output became epochal. Bowie recurrently employed outer space as a metaphor to critique the socio-economic systems in place on our own planet. His complex, at times contradictory critique can be followed through two narrativized personae found largely in his earlier albums: Major Tom and Ziggy Stardust.

The character of Major Tom is first introduced to us in “Space Oddity”, recorded in 1969 and released the month of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Bowie cited the influence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey on the record, an inspiration discernible in the crisp whiteness and zero-gravity scenery of its original 1969 video. Major Tom is a symbol of existentialism; literally floating in space, he provided a metaphor of uncertainty particularly apposite to Britain entering the 1970s amidst protests, industrial unrest, and conscious political efforts to push the nation into the future. Early in his career, Bowie chides the superficial nature of celebrity culture with the lyric ‘the papers want to know whose shirts you wear’ being particularly incongruous when addressed to an astronaut drifting ‘past one hundred thousand miles’ from earth.

Despite the song’s potentially bleak outlook, there’s an upbeat serenity to the melody, most notable in Tony Visconti’s woodwind interlude, and in Bowie’s calm, complacent delivery of such dispirited lines as ‘Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do.’ Outer space here retains the potential for utopian promise, a missive seemingly reiterated in Bowie’s next album, in which a ‘Star Man, waiting in the sky’ beholds hope for the ‘kids.’ Unlike the later downbeat Britpop of The Smiths, often channelling unabashed political angst directed against Thatcher’s attempts to drag Britain into the service industry, seventies Bowie offers space as a glamorous and glorious alternative to a mundane world. A style chameleon, his vivid red hair, sartorial inspiration from the Japanese avant-garde, and even his own nominal reinvention as ‘Bowie’ from the former David Robert Jones, held the powerful promise that each of us can be whatever we may choose.

Kansai Yamamoto (Vogue, 1971), a key stylistic influence for Ziggy Stardust.

Kansai Yamamoto (Vogue, 1971), a key stylistic influence for Ziggy Stardust.

Rock and roll, as the conduit and progenitor of myth, forms the- perhaps unwittingly self-reflexive- subject of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, Bowie’s 1972 concept album. A ‘leper messiah’ musician, the rock star Ziggy’s journey is a pedagogical narrative, dealing with the simultaneously emancipatory and repressive power of rock music. The album’s eponymous character is a provocative, talented and troubled performer who ‘took it all too far,’ along with being an extra-terrestrial with fated hopes of redeeming the human planet. In this otherworldliness, Bowie gave a message of hope to the alienated, reaching out from his own detachment to ours with such lyrics as ‘press your space face close to mine, love.’ He would crush the optimism heralded by Ziggy’s prophesized ‘Star Man’ in a 1974 interview with William Burroughs, conceding that the ‘starmen’ are in fact black holes, who kill Ziggy on reaching earth, “tearing him to pieces onstage during the song ‘Rock and Roll Suicide.’ …It is a science-fiction fantasy of today.” When penning the lyrics, Bowie envisaged the album becoming a stage show, and the dazzling theatricality of the spectacle he describes to Burroughs is itself telling, befitting of an age in which death and destruction hold more alluring glamour than morose realism.

By the time of ‘Ashes to Ashes’ (1983), his former 1972 album’s prophetic self-reflexive note has become more conscious and imploring. Bowie confronts pop cultural amnesia with the opening lyric: “do you remember a guy that’s been / in such an early song?” Major Tom is rediscovered, and an understated, complex dread unfolds from the lines ‘oh no, don’t say it’s true; they’ve got a message from the action man.’  The horror of the message is its bromide banality: the Major simply states: “I’m happy, hope you’re happy too,” a platitude that feels absurdly disappointing coming from a supposedly heroic astronaut, transcending the winters of discontent. ‘Ashes to Ashes’ would be Major Tom’s last lyrical appearance in Bowie’s music. The song’s title invokes a phrase derived from the Book of Common Prayer, traditionally read at funeral services when the deceased is being committed to the ground. In the song, however, it is the myth of the ‘action man’ woven around the astronaut that is laid to rest; Major Tom is acknowledged as human, mortally flawed, and this human body is being committed to the cosmos. Optimistically ‘stepping through the door’ to embark on his space voyage in 1969, backed by fans and public fervour, by 1983 the Major has found nothing fulfilling in outer space but the morphine in his space kit. Bitterly acknowledged as a ‘junkie,’ he is left to his own self-destructive devices by the culture of apathy that has taken over on Earth.

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Many cultural commentators have agreed that Major Tom in fact makes a final appearance in the video for ‘Blackstar’ (2015), as a deceased astronaut. It’s an appealing theory, enigmatically unconfirmed by Johan Renck, the video’s director. If followed, however, Bowie’s final video sees Major Tom’s bejewelled skull found by a girl with a tail, her white dress and youth denoting her innocence. She carries the skull to its fate as the centrepiece of an elaborate ritual, and the implications of the ceremony might well be peculiarly timely. Bowie seems to be suggesting that only in death can the troubled icon be redeemed and deified as a beacon of perfection- the astronaut’s bones, symbolic of his mortal vice, are meanwhile discarded and left to float away. Major Tom, an astronaut with legitimate, political backing and direct communications with ‘Ground Control,’ is a somewhat antithetical persona to the destructive rock star found in the seventies’ Ziggy. The Major has been proudly sent out as an approved representative of our planet, while Ziggy invades it, an unwarranted incendiary. Both otherworldly characters, however, represent precisely the same social tendency to invest icons with unreal powers, and destroy or abandon those icons when they can’t live up to our misplaced dreams.  Fortunately, David Bowie lives on in the stars, remaining a proud symbol of our planet’s cultural capacity; perhaps it was only in his self-alienation from the mainstream that he could attain such widely acclaimed veneration as his genius deserves.

Katrina Russell

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