Ain’t there one damn song that can make me
Break down and cry?
And it stops you cold, making you ask, Is there?
I believe that moment in the song. I believe it means exactly what it says—that it’s a real question, and that when Bowie wrote the line he didn’t know the answer. He had the radio on and there was nothing that moved him, so he had to write the song himself.
“You couldn’t call it soul/You had to call it heart,” Maria Muldaur sang in Kate McGarrigle’s “The Work Song” in 1973, about old-time music, “back before the blues were blue.” There’s a strain of heart music in Bowie that’s absolutely modern—with a sheen, a sparkle, a sense of casting back to nothing, a possibility that everything can be new and everything can be lost. It’s there in the empathy, the ability to get lost in someone else’s crowd, of “All the Young Dudes,” which Bowie wrote for Mott the Hoople; it’s the sense of regret and loss in “The Man Who Sold the World”—the world is gone. It may be there most completely in “Life on Mars?”
In that song, from Bowie’s 1971 album Hunky Dory, a young woman goes to a movie and comes out disappointed, humiliated because she paid money to see something she hoped she’d want to remember and leaves feeling as stupid as the people who made the picture think she is. That’s all that happens. Chuck Berry once said that he wrote songs about cars “because everybody has one”; everybody’s been to this movie. But then, in the song, you’re in the theater, watching the movie whether you want to or not. At first, Bowie’s tone conjures a man so close to the woman in the song that you can feel his eyes on her, looking for her every reaction to what’s on the screen, but it’s distanced, too: He’s taking notes. There’s melodrama in the chorus, as stock scenes from generic movies fly by in a manner so glamorous that, despite the contempt in the lyrics as mere words, you feel the singer is loving every moment and you’re afraid you’re missing something. And then, after following the woman into the theater and finding himself caught up in the drama of art and audience, the singer is on the street, walking alongside everyone else, whole vistas of history and fashion opening and closing before him, and his tone is quiet, ordinary, accepting, and there’s a sense that modern life—all of its advertisements and conveniences, its comforts and distractions—is a diversion. It’s the class system offering you new clothes, a trick, a fraud, and that’s all there is.
The song breathes out the whole sweep of postwar British culture before the Beatles turned it on its head—the slow, squalid sink of pointless desires caught in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956), Colin MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners (1959), Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie in Billy Liar (1963), Nell Dunn’s Up the Junction (1963)—and places it squarely in the present. It’s a drama of ordinary life you can’t turn away from, because you’re seeing a life that you know, that you’re living, thrown up on the screen of the song. The quietest tinkling piano begins it; at the end, the piano trails off into a huge, harsh crescendo of movie-finale strings—hero and heroine clasped in each other’s arms, wind propelling them into their future—as if the notes can’t remember the song.
Even though David Bowie was not a star in the U.S. in 1971, RCA put nothing but his face on the cover of Hunky Dory. No name, no title, simply a hand-tinted, sepia-toned photo of a man with blue eyes holding his long blond hair back from his forehead, a face that was suspended somewhere between the Pre-Raphaelites and Bloomsbury but that, as the person looked up and out of the frame, gazed, too, into an unwritten future, a future that the songs on the album you held in your hands were trying to write. Whatever else this person is, he is beautiful. He looks as if he’ll live forever.
Artforum, March 2016