Listen to this track by former sixties London R&B scenester turned cosmically-inclined singer-songwriter David Bowie. It’s “Space Oddity”, a single as taken from his second self-titled 1969 album that would in time be re-titled Space Oddity when it was re-issued in the early seventies. The song would be released on July 11 in the UK, on the same day of the historic Apollo 11 mission to the moon. The BBC held off on playing it until the astronauts returned safely.
For Bowie’s part as far as the approach to writing this song, parallels to science fiction and his journey with fame would begin here, with many other songs and at least one movie role in his future that would explore the same themes. In this case, this dynamic is achieved through his character of Major Tom, a renowned astronaut lauded by the masses, but finding himself isolated and searching for meaning when confronted with the planetary scale of things, all awash in acoustic guitar strumming, jazzy drumming, and keyboardist Rick Wakeman’s appropriately spacey mellotron lines.
From here, it’s not too difficult to draw parallels between floating in a tin can far above the world, the nature of fame, and of existence in general.
As much as this tune is looked upon as a science fiction tale, springing from space program news of the Apollo missions of the late-sixties and from pop culture references to 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s very much one that brings things down to earth, particularly when it comes to the politics of celebrity. Major Tom is celebrated because of his job that not many people are qualified to do, not unlike that of a rock musician selling records and playing shows for the adulation of audiences. On this level, “Space Oddity” is a comment on the showbiz game. It’s a story about how the dynamics of adulation and loneliness very often intertwine. Maybe a 22-year old Bowie felt he was embarking on a journey into space of his own in this respect, unsure of the destination or the cost to get there. But, even that interpretation limits this song; it’s scope is even wider.
“Space Oddity” has proven itself to be culturally resonant long since its release. In fact, it had some of its most potent cultural impact several years after its initial release. This includes re-releases, cover versions, sequel songs, uses in movie soundtracks, and even versions as recorded directly from tin cans that were literally far above the world when Canadian astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield recorded his version while aboard the International Space Station in 2014. That particular interpretation of the song that was very much supported by Bowie himself helps to reveal the layers found in it that go beyond the exclusive realms of the celebrated. Created as it was from space, and shared with millions of people all over the world below, it seemed that “Space Oddity” is about all of us, celebrities or not.
In a certain respect, we’re all sitting in our respective tin cans, born into a world while not really knowing why we’re here, what we’re meant to do, or where we’re going.”Space Oddity” is a reflection of that very same struggle. In this song, “floating in a most peculiar way” is as good a description of our lives in their mystery and uniqueness as any. When something goes wrong with the mission and with Major Tom, and we never find out exactly what happens, or why, it feels appropriate.
Even still, beyond the concept of celebrity, our existential plight, or even how the former is often erroneously thought to be the cure for the latter, this song is strangely calming, even comforting. Maybe that’s because in a way, we’re reminded by it that even if we’re ultimately floating in a most peculiar way alone in our individual existence, we’re all in the same tin can together as a human race. We’re reminded too of how important it is to remain connected to each other while we’re able, telling our stories and listening to those of others before our circuits are dead and we float away. We need each other to keep our feet on the ground.
For more about this song, check out this post about “Space Oddity” and some of the background events that helped to create it.
David Bowie is an active musician and songwriter today. Trace his history and his more recent efforts at davidbowie.com. Among other things you’ll discover there is news of his upcoming new album ★(pronounced Blackstar), which comes out on his 69th birthday, January 8, 2016.
Here’s a video for the title track, making a return to the same kind of space imagery that Bowie started with 47 years before, with theories that the space suit featured in the video is a direct reference to Major Tom.