As listeners hook their headsets to the silver screen, they transport to the surreal world of Bowie’s universe marked by shocking red mullets, clown-like rouge, and comical blue eyeshadow. Perhaps the hallmark of Bowie’s signature art-rock style, “Life on Mars” embodies the enigmatic, theatrical, and quirky characteristics that embody Bowie as an artist. Despite being one of the most renowned and culturally significant songs in music history, listening to “Life on Mars” evokes a sense of obscurity comparable to stumbling upon a never released experimental vinyl. This unusually composed song paired with its accompanying music video deviates so far from mainstream music, yet perfectly belongs in Bowie’s strange, intergalactic universe.
“Life on Mars” was released on Bowie’s sophomore 1971 album, Hunky Dory. It was later released as a single. Bowie’s inspiration for the song derived from one of his earliest, unreleased pieces: an English adaptation of Claude François’s “Comme d’habitude” (As Usual). In the 60s, it was common practice for English artists to write their own lyrics to the melodies of hit European songs. Bowie titled his adaptation “Even a Fool Learns to Love.” Bowie never saw the project to completion and left it to the wayside. Paul Anka then bought the rights to the original French song “Comme d’habitude,” and rewrote it as the famous classic “My Way.” Frank Sinatra’s performance of “My Way” rocketed the song to fame, and Bowie then took it upon himself to revisit his interpretation of “Comme d’habitude,” which was “Even a Fool Learns to Love.” After much deliberation, ruminating, and hours of musical genius; Bowie produced what we now know as “Life on Mars.”
The piece hodge podged together several 20th century cultural references. Further influences include the Hollywood Argyles’ doo-wop hit “Alley Oop.” Bowie took the line “Look at those cavemen go” directly from “Alley Oop.” The orchestral crescendo of Bowie’s tune can not only be recognized in its parodic inspiration, Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” – it also echos in Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, The Beatles’ “Somewhere,” and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” (“Stairway to Heaven” came after “Life on Mars”)
“Life on Mars” remains one of the most enigmatic songs of all time. Though many people enjoy parroting its catchy tune and memorable lyrics, listeners and fans alike often don’t have the slightest idea as to what the song means. With lyrics such as “Sailors fighting in the dance hall/Oh man! Look at those cavemen go” and “Rule Britannia is out of bounds/To my mother, my dog, and clowns,” “Life on Mars” is both a nonsensical word salad and a masterly allegory.
“Life on Mars” is a critique of the media consumption culture, systematic oppression, and capitalistism that were prominent in the 1960s (obviously, this was not limited to the 60s, but Bowie was critiquing a very specific period in history at the time that he wrote this song). Bowie criticizes this culture through a satirical story narrated by the lyrics of the song. In this story, a girl’s parents forbid her from going out, so she lives vicariously through media consumption (particularly film and TV). She uses media as a form of escapism and way to travel past the confines of her mundane life. This escapism and vicarious exploration correlates with the title and repeated line “Is there life on Mars?” which expresses a yearning for life beyond Earth. Yet the girl quickly becomes unfazed by the very source of her escapism and excitement. She soon realizes the ridiculous, formulaic, and trite nature of escapist media. She concludes that artistic fantasies derive from experiences and phenomena present in the very world they seek to avoid. Bowie expresses this theme trough lyrical illusions to pop culture, vivid satirical imagery, and metaphors portraying mass consumers as primitive and oblivious to the cruel reality of life.
In the first verse, Bowie establishes the monotonous, desensitizing nature of video media:
As she walks through her sunken dream To the seat with the clearest view And she's hooked to the silver screen But the film is a saddening bore For she's lived it ten times or more
The hyperbole exaggerating the number of times the girl has relived the film (or comparable films) admonishes the unoriginality of cinema culture. The girl becomes dejected by living the film “ten times or more,” realizing that everything eventually repeats itself. As she watches society continue to feed the exploitative, capitalistic movie industry, she grows detached from both the far off universes in movies and her own mortal life. This strengthens Bowie’s argument that capitalism and media culture are harmful and pervasive aspects of global life.
Bowie further denounces mass entertainment and capitalism through an allusion to the pop culture figure Mickey Mouse:
It's on America's tortured brow That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow
“Cash cow” is a metaphor comparing steady businesses to a dairy cow that can be milked for several years with very little care. This line asserts that Disney is a cash cow, milking the same basic stories and characters to continually reap financial benefit.
Following this metaphor, Bowie shifts his critique to music media:
Now the workers have struck for fame 'Cause Lennon's on sale again
These lines allude to John Lennon’s song “Working Class Hero,” which artistically stretches John Lennon’s childhood narrative into a proletariat power struggle. This is ironic because Lennon grew up in a detached, comfortable upper middle class life and built his musical career upon the very capitalist system he rebukes in “Working Class Hero.” Bowie attributes musical stars like the Beatles as just as guilty of playing into this corrupt system. Lenon exploits his own story just as Disney exploits Mickey Mouse. They squeeze all they can muster out of their own form of media in an effort to make the most money with little creative exertion. It is important to note that Bowie wrote this before reaching rock star fame. As his career progressed, he too contributed to this corrupt system.
Next, Bowie compares consumers to animals with a herd mentality:
See the mice in their million hordes From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads
This establishes an image of people en masse, following whatever norm is set for them. This connotes that they are void of individual thought by letting systems control them. Ibiza and the Norfolk Broads were popular British tourist destinations. Comparing the tourists to mice in hordes reflects the idiocy of commercial tourism. Since people travel in hordes to the same destinations, they fail at escaping. Even though they change physical location, they do not break away from group norms which define the world they want to escape.
Finally, the chorus repeats this set of ever prevalent lines:
It's the freakiest show Take a look at the Lawman Beating up the wrong guy
“Lawman” is a metonym for the corrupt police, security, and law enforcement system. Bowie both scorns the violent criminal justice system and the media’s fetishization of pain and suffering. Through this image, Bowie corroborates that mass systems are inherently oppressive. Furthermore, he articulates that this corruption is a two way process. Yes, the system enforces a dehumanizing power imbalance; however, this system maintains its legitimacy through consumer fascination with violence, pain, and suffering. This is similar to Benjamin’s assertion that dominance requires participation from both the oppressor and the oppressed.
Bowie uses these poetic devices to prove that media industries are corrupt monopolies, that consumer culture is an unhealthy and dissatisfying form of escapism, and that mass public support of these corrupt industries only strengthens their power. This illustrates the vicious cycle of capitalism.
Although “Life on Mars” never reached the household stardom of “My Way,” the song is both a musical and literary masterpiece. It reveals several layers of societal flaws whilst regaling a captivating narrative. Even if “Life on Mars” fades further out of public recognition, it will continue not influence music for decades to come.