The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and his detachment from reality

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This story is part of the book:
Mama Mia Let Me Go!
A journey through the most intriguing lyrics and stories in rock music

Buy it on Amazon

The Man who Sold the World is a song written by David Bowie (although many continue to think that it was by Nirvana) that, after years, still remains enigmatic.


Let’s start from this verse: 

Oh no, not me
I never lost control…

David Bowie wants to highlight a difference between him and someone else, who has in some way lost control. But not him. He says it clearly.

So who lost control? And about what?

The protagonist of the story has lost control over his perception of reality. This individual could be any of us; overwhelmed by frenetic modern times, we hide and transform our beings, our appearances and our thinking.

You’re face to face
With the man who sold the world

Whoever has lied to themselves, anyone who has benefited from being mistaken for someone else, whoever has created a character or guise, or a world in which there hasn’t been success, can be considered “the man who sold the world”.

Losing control with reality, we seriously risk forgetting who we really are. We adapt to the mask that we wear because that’s what society wants from us, and we believe that only by selling our own world, our way of being, could we be accepted. We think this is the only way to become a part of the society around us.

David Bowie. The Man Who Sold The World (1970)

He said I was his friend
Which came as some surprise
I spoke into his eyes
I thought you died alone
A long long time ago

This is who Bowie is talking about: all the people who, in order to achieve something, transform their own truth and life and hide behind a mask, minimising their “ego”, like a feeble flame that is being extinguished. But this is like hiding dust under the rug: there is no way to erase what or who we are and that same rug will begin to swell, sooner or later.

Many, however, prefer to ignore this and continue to sell the world to conquer love, to succeed at work, to be always at the top in a community that drives us to be and to do more and more.

I laughed and shook his hand
And made my way back home
I searched for form and land
For years and years I roamed

Perhaps the song was written for himself. Even though, as we have seen in the beginning, Bowie tries in all ways to distance himself from these types of individuals; he wants to emphasise that he is not like everyone else. He perceives within himself a Bowie who is different from the mask that everyone knows, different from the rock star. Under the mask that has been created, there is his ego, his world – the real one. In the song, he has an encounter with a part of himself that he’s been thinking was dead for years. But luckily, it was still alive.

In 1997, in an interview with BBC, David Bowie revealed:

“I think I wrote it because there was a part of me that I was still looking for… For me that song has always exemplified the state of mind that you feel when you are young, when you realise that there is a part of us that we have not yet managed to put together, there is this great research, a great need to really understand who we are.”

I gazed a gazely stare
At all the millions here
We must have died alone
A long long time ago

This story is part of the book:
Mama Mia Let Me Go!
A journey through the most intriguing lyrics and stories in rock music

Buy it on Amazon

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