Return to Stardust: A Bowie Tribute
David Bowie was frequently referred to as “a pop chameleon,” but although he consistently adapted his stylings, he was not someone to blend in — he stood out. It was as if his mystically different colored eyes, the result of a childhood fistfight over a girl with his lifetime artistic partner George Underwood, allowed him to see both the past and future clearly. His left pupil was permanently dilated and sometimes vulnerably open to light, a metaphor to the observational intake that allowed him to create predictive and reactionary eclectic works with staying power.
He was an influencer, challenging standards in music, fashion and identity. His passing on Sunday saw an outpouring of deserved respects. He incorporated so many genres into his work and, as such, inspired at least one of your favorite artists. Kanye West tweeted Sunday, “David Bowie was one of my most important inspirations, so fearless, so creative, he gave us magic for a lifetime.”
“Blackstar,” released Jan. 8, acts as the embodiment of his lyrics and persona: “Let’s dance, for fear tonight is all.” The album, recorded in three sessions, consists of seven songs, and at 41 minutes long, it is an eerie embodiment of picking the songs to be played at your funeral. The singer’s finalé is characteristically experimental, incorporating jazz and, as album producer Tony Visconti told Pitchfork, “avoiding rock and roll.” Visconti also referenced Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly” and experimental hip-hop group Death Grips as big influences on the album, proving the evolution of Bowie’s work yet again.
“Blackstar” acts as a sincerely orchestrated finalé in the context of Bowie’s death. The repetition of “Where the f*** did Monday go?” on the track “Girl Loves Me” proves inexplicably supernatural, and therefore fittingly Bowie, as he died on a Sunday. The closing track on the album, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” affirms the inscrutable nature of his work, and fittingly most of it remains ambiguous. The heartbreaking lyrics “I know something is very wrong” and “Seeing more and feeling less” seem to directly address his 18-month battle with cancer. The “Lazarus” music video features Bowie anxiously writing through convulsions and wearing all black. The scene can be interpreted as Bowie rushing to write his final album through illness and constraints beyond his own control.
The New York Times ran statistics on which of Bowie’s songs have been most popular in Spotify since his death. Here’s what Scene has on repeat:
Kelly McGarry — “Space Oddity”
Just listening to this song is a journey in itself. Whatever I’m doing when I hear this song, I find myself “floating in a tin can,” feeling the confused, mixed emotions that I somehow know Major Tom shared. The song was released in the legendary year of 1969, in the midst of space-travel obsession, a topic that would obviously appeal to the adventurous Bowie. His presentation of the dialogue in the song is intriguing: It’s barely perceptible when he changes characters. The song represents a range of emotions, from uncertainty and hesitance to the playful guitar riff that follows the chorus and gives off an unmistakably carefree vibe. A sort of parody of 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” which looked into the future, this song is one of many constantly taking on new meaning in light of Bowie’s later work.
Erin McAuliffe- —“Life on Mars?”
David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?,” off 1971’s glam-rock album “Hunky Dory,” is a dramatic ballad featuring frequent collaborators Rick Wakeman on piano and Mick Ronson on guitar. The song crescendos into a showy, Broadway-esque hymn, paralleling the lyrics’ stance on overblown, overdone entertainment.
The song focuses on a “a sensitive young girl’s reaction to the media.” The story sets up her perspective as an outcast who finds solace, or at least numbness, in entertainment. The lyrics reference her fighting parents and solitary friend who stands her up at the movies. The situation evokes sympathy for the young girl who is “hooked to the silver screen” by the controlling media. The image brings to mind the iconic photo by LIFE’s J.R. Eyerman of the audience at the opening-night screening of the first full-length, color 3D movie, “Bwana Devil.”
The repetition of “as they ask you to focus on” acts as a subliminal message to ignore all else going on. This can be seen as a critique of the media’s exclusionary coverage of events and focus on menial mundanities while people laugh at “the lawman beating up the wrong guy,” a lyric that sticks out in the context of today’s police brutality issues and attesting to the staying power and relevancy of Bowie’s ever forward-looking work.
An interesting anecdote to the song is its origin as an OG diss tracks. In light of “Back to Back,” Drake’s Grammy-nominated reply to Meek Mill’s Twitter beef, “Life on Mars?” attests to the relevancy in quality reply tracks. Bowie wrote lyrics, titled “Even A Fool Learns to Love,” to the 1967 French composition “Comme d’habitude.” Bowie’s version was never released, but Paul Anka bought the rights to “Comme d’habitude” and wrote the lyrics to “My Way” — Frank Sinatra’s famous 1969 single. The success of Sinatra’s version prompted Bowie to write “Life on Mars?” as a critique of the entertainment industry, confirmed by Bowie’s liner note that the song was “inspired by Frankie.”
Notably, classes like Notre Dame’s “Music in London” are still analyzing the thought-provoking song that Bowie wrote in a space with aesthetics including “a huge overflowing freestanding ashtray and a grand piano. Little else. I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon.”
Nick Laureano — “Five Years”
A cataclysmic, baroque depiction of a doomed Earth opens David Bowie’s seminal album “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.”
But the Starman has not yet contacted Ziggy with his glimmer of hope for humanity. So when the world is faced with its rapidly approaching expiration date — just a short five years away — pandemonium ensues. “Five Years” is Bowie at his most frighteningly direct: “News guy wept and told us / Earth was really dying / Cried so much his face was wet / Then I knew he was not lying.” Yet it is also Bowie at his most poetically observant, and as he sings offhand, “I think I saw you in an ice-cream parlor / Drinking milkshakes cold and long / Smiling and waving and looking so fine / Don’t think you knew you were in this song,” we understand the beauty of just letting the world wash over you, no matter the circumstances.
When I awoke Monday morning to a Twitter feed filled with laments and lyrics alike, my thoughts instantly turned to “Five Years;” to the way Bowie describes the mountains of bric-a-brac upended by bedlam, and to an image of Ziggy, Aladdin Sane or the Thin White Duke enjoying a $5 shake in the back corner of an ice-cream parlor, amid all the uproar caused by his departure. The world didn’t end when David Bowie died, but his death may have given us a glimpse of the 21st century update to his greatest song. What will you tweet when the Starman comes?
Matt McMahon — “Queen Bitch”
When I was growing up my mom would always, apropos of nothing, break out into the first verse from “Queen Bitch” in this spoken-word style that accentuated one of her favorite artist’s favorite lyrics just so. It was one of a handful of go-to songs for her when we were around the house, and I’d argue it was the coolest one, by far. She had a way of talking through Bowie’s ultra slick verse, especially stressing the lines “My heart’s in the basement / My weekend’s at an all-time low,” just like he did on the recording. This having been my first exposure to his music, it was both the first thing I thought about when I read of Bowie’s death Sunday night and the first thing I said to my mom after. Looking back on those lines, it’s stunning how fun and assured he — and as a result my mom — could make that crushing couplet sound, just by the intonation in his voice. It’s the sort of dynamic he created in all of his music, no matter what stage he was exploring or who he was currently portraying over the course of his prolific 50-year career. It’s also the same mix of emotions you feel when the one and only David Bowie passes; you feel the melancholy of losing such a remarkable, singular presence, but you also remember what astounding things he brought into existence and can’t help but celebrate that at the same time.
Jack Riedy — “Boys Keep Swinging”
A few brief snare hits, and there he is, singing and dancing in a conventional style wearing conventional dress. It’s weird. He’s David Bowie; why is he wearing a well-fit suit? He even has attractive women as backup singers, the only other people in the video, appearing in brief flashes. It all resembles a ’50s rock-n-roll number. I knew his music became more commercial in the ‘80s, but I didn’t know he became so normal. I’m standing in front of a large screen, arms folded. I’m in the middle of the “David Bowie Is” exhibit at the MCA Chicago. I’ve never heard this song before.
“Boys Keep Swinging” is deceptive. The music is propulsive and simple, relying on a few simple chords and a rubbery bass line, until a distorted and discordant guitar solo erupts. The lyrics, rather than celebrate traditional masculinity, poke and prod at the idea of gender. If “life is a pop of the cherry when you’re a boy,” should I be thrilled or scared?
As the solo begins, the camera pans to a runway. One by one, the backup singers strut towards me and pull off their wigs, revealing themselves to be David Bowie. He tosses the wig aside and smears his lipstick with the back of his hand. What a relief.
Jimmy Kemper — “Lazarus”
Even in death, David Bowie is an unrelenting artist. “Lazarus,” from David Bowie’s last album “Blackstar” is a final testament to the greatness of a man who pushed the envelope of music, fashion and art for his entire five decade career. The video for “Lazarus” was released just two days before Bowie’s death in a carefully-orchestrated farewell to his fans. Here it was, hiding in plain sight, the revelation of Bowie’s suffering over the past 18 months at the hands of cancer.
In the opening lines, Bowie shouts: “Look up here, I’m in Heaven!” With his passing, these lyrics and the accompanying video become so much more haunting. In the video, David Bowie plays a man on his deathbed, belting this eerie song with an energy far beyond what one would expect for someone so close to his end. But the unexpected has always come second nature to Bowie, and this song, with its disconcerting lyrics and unconventional jazz accompaniment, continues that tradition of the extraordinary. “Lazarus” is sure to become a quintessential part of the David Bowie canon in the coming months, as we remember, analyze and reflect upon his works, surpassing even “The Man Who Sold the World” as Bowie’s most chilling song.
Bowie has been a Lazarus his whole life, dying and recreating himself over and over again, as Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, the Goblin King and so many other brilliant characters. And now, with his final breaths, David has given the world one last chance to rise with him to the stars.