The stars look very different today

I had a drafted post all set to publish, on the Daily Post photo challenge theme of Weight(less).

Then David Bowie died, and his lyrics have been flowing through all my social media feeds, filling up cyberspace, and pushing themselves into the forefront of my mind, because they are so poetic, and because some of his most memorable lyrics seem to lend themselves to the theme at hand.

It would be hypocritical of me to pretend I was a big Bowie fan – I like all I’ve heard of his many and varied musical outputs, but personally, I’ve never purchased a David Bowie album. We have most of his albums in the very large collection of music in this house, but they my partner’s.

So I am far less qualified that many who are now writing posts about David Bowie – the artist, or the influence of his songs on their lives – and I can’t pretend to write about him with any of the authority of a music journalist or even a devoted life-long fan. But the sense of some link between his lyrics and the idea of weightlessness kept bugging me so I thought I’d have a go at tying them together.

Fortunately for people like me – who were still largely ignorant about just how much of a creative genuis the man was – the touring David Bowie exhibition came to Melbourne in 2015. I went, and was quite astonished at the wide scope of his creative pursuits, as well as the breadth of his artistic and literary influences.

One of the things I was most fascinated to learn about was his interest in the Dadaist technique of “Cut Up” poetry. Dada was a movement of artists and writers that occurred in Europe around the time of the First World War – my knowledge of it was gleaned from my studies as a visual artist. I was aware of the Cut Up technique they developed, and that it was more famously used by Beat writer William Burroughs in the 1960s.

These are the instructions for making a Dadaist poem, as written by the original Dadaists:

Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are—an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

(source: The Modernism Lab)

At the David Bowie exhibition, I learned that as a songwriter, Bowie was so interested in this technique, he had a computer program devised that would take a text and cut it up and put it back together for him. We may have seen this clip of Bowie talking about the cut up method – I can’t remember if that was included in the exhibition – but I do know that we saw a simulation of the computer program, “cutting” and reconfiguring his lyrics into new, nonsensical sentences. This stuck with me as an example of his willingness to look at history, and absorb the influence of avant-garde artists, and experiment with techniques that had, to that point at least, very little commercial or mainstream appeal.

At this particular time, of course, it’s inevitable that we all think of the songwriter’s lyrics, and it’s hard to resist imposing new meanings and symbolism onto them. I am not sure which albums Bowie wrote using the Cut Up technique but I doubt it was the ones whose lyrics have been most frequently quoted in my social media feeds in the past few days, as those are songs with a very clear narrative to them. The reason people are quoting those particular lyrics now is because they are excerpts from the story of a person, a loner, who has physically gone beyond the world and is looking back at it. Either that or he is not of this world, but would like to join it. There’s the Starman, waiting in the sky;  there’s Major Tom, floating in a tin can, high above the Moon. They are both floating, untethered; weightless.

Free they may be, but they are not entirely happy. Each of these figures is very emphatically alone, a tiny biped, isolated in the huge emptiness of the universe, looking back down at the planet with, it seems, a sense of longing to join it again.

Even with reference to only these two songs, it’s easy to conclude that Bowie used the metaphor of an astronaut out in space to explore the very human condition of feeling alone, lonely, abandoned, and simultaneously like a curiosity that everyone ogles at but no-one else understands.

I remember as a child, the first time I registered the lyrics to A Space Oddity and I remember almost feeling his sense of overwhelming isolation myself, when the forward drive in the music suddenly changes pace and slows right down, and over the slowed-down instrumentation, you hear the slightly nasal wail of the astronaut, resigning himself to floating around alone forever in the universe until he dies.  Tell my wife I love her very much, she knows.

As a child, I felt the weight of that as if it was a Shakespearian tragedy. I couldn’t quite believe that the song ended and left him still out there. I found the fading-away ending to the song to be as heart-breaking as Bowie could have hoped anyone would.

It occurs to me now that Bowie skilfully captured a feeling of space, and air, and weightlessness in those songs, and he managed to convey that, although weightlessness is a synonym for words that are poetic and beautiful – like lightness, floating, ethereality, airiness – those concepts are not inherently positive.

For example, as I’m sure Bowie was aware, if your sense of floating above the earth is because you are high, then that feeling of weightlessness might also bring a sense of detachment, which in turn might further enhance your feeling of being alienated from the rest of the world. Another condition that can cause that state of detachment is shock. I recall, when I was told that my brother died, feeling removed, and almost looking down on myself. If I felt weightless, it was not because I felt free, but because in my shock I believed that I’d heard the worst thing imaginable, so nothing else could have any effect on me.

There’s a final way that Bowie’s songs are weightless, but in this I could say the same of any legendary songwriter.

That is, that even after the songwriter has died, they live on, in the heads of those who loved their music and will continue to hum the tune and sing the words they wrote, for days, weeks, months, years and even decades afterwards. Lyrics to songs are more memorable than the text of a novel or play, more popular than a poem, because they are set to music. It’s in song that words reach, and speak to, the greatest number of people. In that sense, those who have written songs that will be sung, and lyrics that will be quoted for a long, long time after their creator has exited this life, have achieved a kind of weightlessness.

Here am I floating in my tin can

Far above the Moon

Planet Earth is blue 

and there’s nothing I can do


2013-04-15 in Lyon




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  1. Bowie has only ever impinged vaguely on the very borders of my awareness. I could probably recognize a picture of him but not cite any of his song titles (apart from those I have just read in your post – which I shall no doubt soon forget again). I feel vaguely sorry for him dying and hope he did not suffer and I feel some vague sympathy for any friends or relatives who may mourn him but that’s it. Many entertainers preceded him; many will follow.

    Everyone is special to someone but no on is special to everybody – nor should they be held to be. Over the last few days there have been echoes in the media of ‘Diana Syndrome’, of a person’s death being inflated well beyond its real importance and of people trying to climb on the bandwaggon and assert some connection with the famous deceased. This will pass, of course. It always does. Then old grumps like me can look around for something else to complain about. There’s never a shortage.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know that the media coverage and commentary on Bowie’s death seemed inflated beyond that for other celebrities, but I think it’s interesting when that sort of thing occurs (as with Diana), to wonder what the reasons are that so many people have a response. I guess I’m always interested in “cultural studies” – I think if a person or a film or a theme or anything from popular culture resonates for an unusually large number of people,then you can learn something about society by investigating what that tells us.

      With Bowie, if you filter through the inane and meaningless articles that don’t tell us anything new and were written merely to cash in (probably including my own, even though I convinced myself at the time that it was the theme of “weightlessness” I was interested in), there have been some great videos and stories revealing to those of us who were not aware of it, that Bowie was far more than just an artist focussed on fulfilling his own creative drive. Perhaps it’s the lack of intelligent, compassionate, and gracious social and/or political commentary from celebrities – and other people with public profiles, eg politicians – that contributes to why Bowie is held in high regard for things like his interview with MTV back in the early 80s, where he quizzed them politely but relentlessly on the lack of black artists on their schedule.

      I think the fervour from fans is also a reflection of what society was like when Bowie first arrived on the scene, and what he represented to them – I heard some touching stories on talkback community radio, from men and women who grew up in small country towns in Australia in the 70s – cultural backwaters – and said they were ostracised and bullied for being “Different” (eg, not playing football). More than one person said when they first saw a video by David Bowie they felt it was a revelation, that he showed them there were different ways to be yourself.

      Aside from societal reasons, there’s also the fact that he was continually creative as an artist, and as a result, has fans across all generations. I think all those things and probably more, contributed to the unusually wide pool of response when he died.


      • It would be arrogant of me to suggest that people who claim that their lives were altered for the better by David Bowie (or any other public figure) were deluding themselves or being silly. People experience what they experience and we cannot observe another’s emotions, only accept (if cautiously) that what they say is true for them.

        This discussion reminded me that my own beloved Tigger went through a Punk phase when young, being the only Punk in the small community where she lived. Maybe this helped her become the unique and remarkable person that she is today, though I incline to the view that it was a symptom of her incipient remarkable qualities rather than their cause. Perhaps this is true also of those who saw themselves as ‘liberated’ by Bowie: what they saw in him was a reflection of what there was already in themselves and awaiting expression.

        As for Bowie the musician, composer, poet, I can say nothing. He lies in the shadows beyond the circle of light cast by my camp fire.


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