Circling the Sun Machine: Re-thinking David Bowie’s 'Space Oddity'
Bowie's odd magnetism has long been interpreted as a function of his ambiguous sexuality, but could it be that he was transgressing more than just gender norms and heralding the rise of the man/machine?
An older cousin introduced me to David Bowie’s Space Oddity, an album he insisted he hadn’t purchased. It had mysteriously appeared in his stack of records and he wanted me to take it off his hands; it would have made him a pariah to own it, even if he acquired it unintentionally. To be clear, there once was a time when Bowie was decidedly not cool. On this, Bowie’s second album under his own name, he had already made himself a mostly unfathomable other, but more importantly had brought moral doubt and condemnation on those who dared listen to him. If you were so unlucky as to have to have been caught with this album under your arm, no explanation could rescue you from the indelible mark it would leave on your character. This was a moral burden not demanded of the typical Beatles or Stones listener.
I remember sitting cross-legged before the album cover of Space Oddity, turning it over in my hands as the record played. Any other specifics about the room or other albums in my cousin’s collection are lost to me. It may be that I began to lose memory as soon as I became acquainted with Bowie’s work. I had always assumed that a particularly brutal group of childhood peers had erased my good memories with the bad; that trauma had turned all my classmates into a ragged gang, ready to nail anyone to a board, even for something as simple as the wrong taste in clothes or music.
Judging by such extreme reactions, one might think this was a serious time in American music and aesthetics. In fact, the radio played such schlock, it functioned as part of a larger cultural trauma, punk becoming its eventual outcome, a kind of cultural acting-out necessitated by an achingly dull predictability on the radio. Somewhere between 1968 and 1977, the best music was positioned alongside some of the worst. It was the time when the Carpenters were the top of the charts, groomed for their performance at the Nixon White House, and the rise of new Republicanism from the suburbs of L.A. seemed to dictate public taste. If I’m painting music with a wide brush, it’s because it felt, from American top-ten radio anyway, that there was a terrible whitewash underway. The charts lit up with such keenly discriminated gems as Bobby Goldsboro’s "Honey" and Gilbert O’ Sullivan’s "Alone Again, Naturally" or the more repulsively pandering, "Clair", and, of course, anything by Bread. While there were plenty of classic songs produced during that period, some of the most successful music -- the songs that sat on the charts for weeks -- felt like an aural Quaalude. Anyone who had the pleasure of using Quaaludes at that time knows that they made you horny and wiped your memory at the same time, both essential for the “story song", “the cancer song", and the long decline of disco.
My introduction to Space Oddity came when I was 12 years old, too young to encounter such primal shame, and too inexperienced to feel proud about it. Now, I realize how essential shame was in understanding rock and roll’s ethos and essential contradictions: great rock and roll is either intentionally amoral or accidentally so. There are many depths to amorality, which marks an essential difference between followers of the Stones and followers of the Stooges. Both bands, however, could be appreciated without shame; they took a certain pride in dereliction enabling their listeners to follow in the gritty shadows they cast.
But a second class of great rock and roll transgresses -- seemingly without intent -- cultural norms. I can’t think of any men who transgressed unintentionally, which makes me wonder if early feminism wasn’t the underlying issue here. Men could sing openly about one-night stands, drugs, promiscuity, while women -- at least white women at that time -- treaded seemingly by accident into the troubled waters of the sexual revolution. I think of how creepy Carly Simon’s "That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be" first sounded, with its mordant verses and its chorus announcing marriage as something as inevitable as a coffin. Almost everything Melanie wrote was wrong; "Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma", "Candles in the Rain", even "Brand New Key" were terrifying, and in the case of "Brand New Key", suggestive of infantile sexuality, flirty, but lasciviously so -- as though she were playing the sexual innuendo a little too young. Her songs were entirely at odds with the stridency of her voice, and that limiting flower child association she was never entirely able to pluck off. Early feminism did not arrive in the collective anthem "I Am Woman". Rather, women’s songs crept into consciousness -- wary, strangely provocative, and frequently stark, like poison dropped into the sleeper's ear. In those days, we thought we knew what “woman” was.
We thought we knew what rock and roll was too, but a lot of it was lazy rock and roll. Songs like Norman Greenbaum’s "Spirit in the Sky" sound great, but aren’t. Jesus rock, even the proto-Jesus rock of those years, wasn’t a toke over the line, but decidedly behind the line. Lazy rock is identifiable by pedestrian riffs, knock-off lyrics that serve the status quo, the outlaw stance, the simulated lack of concern for audience, and the denunciation of earnestness. On the other hand, Space Oddity is almost absurdly earnest, a compendium/concept album of messianic wanderings and wonderings, orchestrated with the grandiosity of the Oliver! soundtrack. The album cover -- the American version of 1972 -- showed a bleed of Bowie’s face, the signature cascade of orange hair one sees in all the live Ziggy clips, and the album title in a simulated computer font that seems perfectly wedged between Kubrick’s 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey and his 1971 film, Clockwork Orange. Even today that font evokes a now-nostalgic -- even hip -- computer-based uniformity. Indeed, there was a much more strongly expressed worry about the intervention of computer norms, oversight, surveillance, mechanical glitches and the rise of sacred science than one ever hears today. It was either a paranoid age, or a wisely skeptical one, but we sensed it wasn’t entirely ours.
It was the back cover of Bowie’s record, though, that stunned me: an enormous moon-rock necklace hung on Bowie’s exposed chest. Sitting duck-footed with red knee-high rubber boots and plastic leopard pants, Bowie didn’t merely evoke glam or bisexual chic, but something truly disassociated from anything knowable. I find it hard to express just how potent this unknowability was, and how after 1980, it became extinct in pop musicians. Great music, outlandish looks, records that changed lives and continue to do so, remain: but the experience of not really knowing what you’re looking at -- who it’s for, or what it’s supposed to evoke -- required a certain cultural naivety, not merely a crowd of impressionable youth with a healthy appetite for outsider status.
In bedrooms where kids had adjusted themselves to the cover of Sgt. Pepper, Bowie represented an austerity neither psychedelic nor morbid. Space Oddity is a transition record par excellence, a stepping out of the Davey Jones era, with all the premonition of the "Spiders from Mars" and "Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family" that wraps up Diamond Dogs. In fact, it’s hard to find any song from Hunky Dory, Aladdin Sane, or any other record before "Young Americans" that doesn’t seem to have its nascent roots in Space Oddity, and yet, it takes -- I think -- a special kind of listener -- to connect with this album’s indulgences. For example, only one song under five minutes long is worth revisiting. A few brief love songs, frequently lauded by reviewers of the 40th anniversary package, are almost embarrassingly junky from orchestration to delivery. "Letter to Hermione" is just such an example. At a mere 2:32 seconds, it’s the kind of direction that, had Bowie followed it, would have led to a career crash resembling Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s "Still… You Turn Me On".
Fortunately, there are only three songs worthy of quick dismissal. The other two are "Janine" and "An Occasional Dream", with the latter not without its charms, but mostly regressive ones, easily fitting the older Davey Jones material. For all its bizarre innovation and imagery of a society for and by machines, Space Oddity is a folk record, with references to Georges Braque, Satori, and the Beckenham Arts Lab Free Festival -- but for years, I’d imagined “Memory of a Free Festival” was about Woodstock, and what was left in its wake: sleeping bags, deflated tents, garbage, afterbirth. (Bowie seems to have the terrible premonition of Woodstock II, a Phaedra-like affliction for which I can only pity him). The record is really defined by its most elaborate epics that show Bowie touched by the alienated genius that later led to the bippity boppity hits we think of when we think of his Ziggy Stardust success: "Moonage Daydream", "Life on Mars", "Rebel, Rebel", "Changes", "Starman", and of course, "Queen Bitch". The six-minute "Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed, nine-and-a-half minute "Cygnet Committee", seven-minute "Memory of a Free Festival", and five-minute "Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud", with its French horns and strings, and more importantly, the synergy Bowie developed with Mick Ronson, who turns every song into an incantatory, punctuated anthem, are this record’s great moments. They build unexpectedly and rarely provide a catchy chorus. Bowie relies on codas on this record, and like "Hey Jude", they can satisfyingly go on and on. I can only imagine the battle Bowie would have to wage with a label to allow so many lengthy songs on a record today. Today: when we don’t even have records. Pray for tomorrow when we don’t have labels!
But the man with the moon rock around his neck, that mash–up of rubber leopard pants and waders -- his unkowability -- is precisely what I want to return to: the idea of the new human that Bowie evoked and sang of. Those of us who became infatuated with very early Bowie frequently bore the slings and arrows of what were the nearest, known epithets: We were called queers, faggots, beaten up at school, ostracized. But “faggot” was shorthand. In retrospect, it gave more credit to queers than they deserved. Bowie was a visionary, not a natural variation of human sexuality, but a first example of what today we theoretically call cyborgs. Bowie’s much-ballyhooed sexuality wasn’t nearly as evocative of what was not biological about him. It’s that combination between man and machine that makes the title song so essential to interpreting the whole record, a perfect distillation of the album’s synthetic premonitions. It may have seemed Bowie intentionally transgressed gender norms, but it’s what he unintentionally transgressed that seems worthy of discussion today.
Donna Haraway, in her now classic essay, "A Cyborg Manifesto", writes: “The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust.” The song, "Space Oddity", draws its dramatic content from the experience of an astronaut’s alienation and exile from earth: human contact is distant, mediated and eventually terminated. Major Tom is entombed in darkness, the ultimate voyager, lost to other humans in a spinning capsule that catches the contours of the planet, its blue, blank oceans. No dust in this demise.
The record starts there and seems to tell the story from that vantage -- as though history ends with space exploration, which may be true. The sun is a machine, and in another song, flickers like a piece of celluloid. Bowie bemoans: “So much has gone and little is new.” And in an age exploding with gadgets and information, it seems true. Haraway, again: “Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert.” In "Cygnet Committee", there’s a “love machine” mowing down everyone in its path. There’s class warfare, “credit card rye bread", imprisoned visionaries, electric tomatoes. The lyrics of "Memory of a Free Festival" evoke a pastoral England, its hippies and dreamers projected on a scrim behind which the malignant forces of dictatorship, martyrdom, mayhem, poverty and machination, above all, are actually well underway. If one reads Joan Didion’s nonfiction from the late ‘60s and the early ‘70s, you can see the same picture occurring: a liberation theology being replaced by menacing counter-forces, an age of think tanks that might as well be actual tanks. The promise of free-thinking communalism overrun by a fascination for new technologies that will enable such a thing to exist: Woodstock replaced by the social network. But of course, these are very different ways of being together, and Bowie’s Space Oddity is a depiction of that loss of the old forms of connecting.
On the other hand, while the early ‘70s may have been an age of great paranoia regarding a loss of “humanity” or “civic responsibility” (Soylent Green, Silent Running, and Westworld are just a few films of the era that attest to the dreaded end of a trustworthy concept of the natural and the dawn of the cybernetic), Bowie’s work is not dystopian. There’s an exultant march in many of the songs, a kind of reveling in the unraveling of reason, as one sees in Dickinson’s poems. We are a different species now, not entirely human, with our hearts in our hard drives, our futures pegged to markets, to a globalism that is more about war profits than shared interests or commitments to mutual survival. The long, grand coda of "Cygnet Committee" has Bowie repeating, “We want to live, we want to live, live, live…” and finally arriving at “I want to live” -- as though there were no choice to bring anyone else along: the fantasy of an aligned movement must eventually be shaken off if one is to survive these new times. But surviving is unquestionably worth doing, even if survival requires a long drift from the known, a continual repositioning in an infinitely vast, dark universe.