David Bowie is rock’s chameleon. He ch-ch-ch-ch-changes his persona every couple of years. It keeps rock critics on their toes: between hand-wringing over ’80s bands with indie-cred reuniting and Lou Reed’s insistence on making new music despite decades of public indifference. At various points in his long career, he has been a guy who isn’t at all enthusiastic about space, a guy from space, a guy with a lightning bolt on his face but otherwise maybe from Earth, a rich guy living in Berlin, nearly beaten up by a daytime-drunk Bing Crosby, a rich guy who music dads like, a rich guy who likes Nine Inch Nails, and, finally, just a well-dressed rich guy. Talk about playing with the rock star image!
At the beginning, though, he really broke through the charts by feeling sad about space travel. At a time when men were walking on the moon for the first time, Bowie asked the challenging question “Doesn’t that make them sad?”
You probably think you like Space Oddity, but have you tried listening to it? I’d like to make a distinction between saying you like a song, and recognizing that you’ve heard of the song. There are some other examples: Bohemian Rhapsody. Stairway To Heaven, anything by Radiohead from about 1997 onward. Sometimes someone brings a pig stuffed with apples and lobsters and cupcakes to a potluck, and although nobody eats it, everyone agrees that a very good effort was made. That’s what Space Oddity is: a long, boring song with lots of long, boring parts, but wow, what an effort. The only parts of the song anybody can think of off the top of their head are counting backwards from ten and “Heeeeeeere am I sitting in a tin can”, which I think we can all agree is a stupid thing to sing.
Don’t get me wrong- stupid lyrics can be great. And sometimes, if a lyric makes little enough sense but could maybe mean sex, people go NUTS for it. That’s what Suffragette City is about. It’s super fun to say, but what the fuck is he talking about? Temperance Societies? Rich white ladies taking offense to Negro men getting the vote before they did? Also, this is when Bowie decides that he’ll ch-ch-ch-change himself into an alien named Ziggy Stardust. You know that episode of Star Trek where they find a planet that someone left a copy of Mein Kampf on and the whole planet is based on Nazi Germany? Imagine a planet where someone left behind a copy of Elton John’s Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road and then one of the aliens travelled back in time a few years to be even more famous than Elton John by doing it first. That is exactly what Bowie’s concept for Ziggy Stardust was. I wonder what else that planet was up to?
Because there isn’t enough space here for me to cover it, the next ch-ch-ch-changes Bowie went through were rich guy, rich guy being sad and kind of unlistenable in Berlin, sad science fiction clown, and rich guy making cocaine jams for baby boom day traders. But then something magical happened. He was cast in the major motion picture Labyrinth, to play the Goblin King. The character looks like middle-aged Jon Bon Jovi dressed as Tina Turner’s character in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (again, time travel was clearly used). And the music is everything people mean when they say music was bad in the 1980s:
If you’re like me, your fingers “Magic Danced” over to the pause button after 45 seconds of the most deeply disturbing music you’ve ever heard. And that was for a movie geared towards children! Perhaps he was trying to set up a Brave New World style future in which a drugged populace listen to nothing but Elton John while inventing a means by which they can travel back in time.
If you’re David Bowie and it’s the middle of the nineties and your Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirt Cowboy dystopia plans are taking longer than you thought they would, what do you do? That’s right: you make some ch-ch-ch-ch-changes. This time, Bowie ch-ch-ch-changed himself into a 14 year old suburban virgin trying to upset their parents while living down a heavy grunge phase, and with that came a steady diet of Nine Inch Nails. Side note: nobody over the age of 15 should listen to, let alone make, the music of Nine Inch Nails. Trent Reznor, consider yourself warned.
If you were listening, you may have noticed that the opening lyrics were:
Uh-uh-uh uh, uh, uh-uh uh-uh-uh
And you wouldn’t have been wrong to assume that he might be covering Trio’s classic Da Da Da. Unfortunately, music fans weren’t so lucky, and we were subjected to:
Johnny wants a plane
Johnny wants to suck on a Coke
Johnny wants a woman
Johnny wants to think of a joke
God is an American
God is an American
More like “God, I can’t stand this.” Ch-ch-ch-change back into a rich guy making cocaine dance jams, Mr. Bowie! For the children! Before this gets any worse!
And worse it got. “Electronica” was the buzzword of the day in the late nineties, and David Bowie ch-ch-ch-changed into the dumbest Union Jack trenchcoat anybody has ever seen or has ever seen since when he got on board the that train. If you’re too young to remember “Electronica”, it was when it was popular to make bad techno and try and pass it off as fancy art music that wasn’t trying to be normal techno, and guys your dad’s age (like David Bowie) would talk about how DJs weren’t rock stars because they were more like mystical witch doctors who magically made people on E dance for hours while wearing big pants with small teddy bears sewn to them. This was going to achieve a new, higher level of consciousness and we would never have to worry about wars or people having jobs like “garbage collector” ever again.
Who was holding the camera, there? An entire chimpanzee colony? Also, thank you for reminding me that time travelling aliens visiting Earth move in slow motion while cars go by really fast. Cars are so fast, people! Slow them down! Or, like millions of teenagers did in1997, pick up the remote and ch-ch-ch-change the ch-ch-ch-channel.