Today’s Song of the Day got in my head after watching Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”. It plays in the film a total of three times. Twice in English, and once in Portuguese, covered by the actor and musician Seu Jorge. But we won’t be discussing any cover versions today. Just the original.
“Life on Mars” is widely considered to be one of the greatest masterpieces in the Bowie canon. And with good reason, too. The song was originally released on the 1971 album, “Hunky Dory”. Two years later, “Life on Mars” was released as a single at the height of the Ziggy Stardust era.
Life on Mars?
In the first verse, Bowie lays out a story of a young girl who goes to the movies, but ultimately ends up being bored by what she sees on screen. The pre-chorus section in “Life on Mars?” is critical to understanding the meaning behind the song.
“But the film is a saddening bore / For she’s lived it ten times or more / She could spit in the eyes of fools / As they ask her to focus on”.
One persistent theme in “Life on Mars?” addresses the relationship between art and life. The young girl sees the film as a “saddening bore”, and merely a parody of her own mundane life.
The chorus paints several pictures for us, in a way that highlights the blurred line between life and art. There’s also a sense of escapism here, and a question as to whether that’s actually possible, when art and life reflect one another.
“Sailors fighting in the dance hall / Oh man! Look at those cavemen go / It’s the freakiest show / Take a look at the lawman / Beating up the wrong guy / Oh man! Wonder if he’ll ever know / He’s in the best selling show / Is there life on Mars?”.
The titular question, “Is there life on Mars?” also speaks to this art/life relationship. But it seems to be asking several questions at once. First, there’s the literal interpretation, which we may as well add. If there is alien life, what stories do they tell? Are they the same kind as ours?
But there’s also a more figurative interpretation you can make, as well. I think the question is also asking whether or not there’s any new art to be made that we haven’t seen hundreds of times already. It’s a question Bowie asks himself, too, in the second pre-chorus section.
“But the film is a saddening bore / Because I wrote it ten times or more / It’s about to be writ again / As I ask you to focus on”.
Here, he’s commenting on the fact that he’s going through the same motions, writing songs that repeat themselves, despite his efforts. There’s an incredible amount of self-awareness in Bowie’s lyrics here. He points out a truth and a flaw he sees, but also recognizes that he isn’t exempt from it.