David Bowie, Life on Mars: the meanings of the lyrics

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Is it possible to explain a poem?

Maybe not. Perhaps we should only enjoy the sound of words, even if we don’t know the language or understand the meaning. The same happens for David Bowie songs, and in particular for Life on Mars: one of the most “cryptic” songs written by the Thin White Duke.

It’s on America’s tortured brow
That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow
Now the workers have struck for fame
‘Cause Lennon’s on sale again

There are various theories explaining the meaning of this song. According to someone, it’s about a girl rejected by the society for her ideas, reflecting upon her life and what’s happening around her (the fights between gangs, TV shows, Beatlesmania, the Iron Curtain, etc.). She is so disgusted that she wishes to leave forever and she wonders if at least on Mars there is life. Mars is therefore last hope for a better life.

Someone else found political references in the lyrics, such as the one about Lennon / Lenin, seeing Mars, the red planet, as a symbol that represents Russia. In this sense “Is there life on Mars?” would be a metaphor that asks us if it’s worth living under the oppression of a regime, whatever color it is.

We prefer the first version. More poetic, probably closer to the normal beauty of Bowie’s lyrics, and probably closer to the sensations that the song communicates while listening to it.

It’s a God-awful small affair
To the girl with the mousy hair
But her mummy is yelling no
And her daddy has told her to go

“The girl with the mousy hair” is a girl like many others, disappointed and betrayed by an empty and depressing reality that crushes dreams, kills hopes and precludes the possibility of looking to the future. For that reason, we exclude ourselves from the world and we look for an escape in a fictitious reality, perhaps more glamorous, more pleasant, where everything apparently seems simpler. And then, with bitterness, we get it asks ourselves if Mars, the alternative to the contingent reality, really exists. And given that it exists, if it’s accessible to all.

Maybe it’s not, but why not believe that there can be a better and alternative reality? Why not dream about a different life than the one you live, why not hope for something else? Perhaps hopes and dreams can push us to change something, to not get used to this liquid society without values, that kills who doesn’t adapt himself to its schemes. Perhaps it’s worth believing that in an unspecified, abstract or ideal place, there is a better and more worthy life to be lived than the one we are living.

The girl’s question thus becomes the question of all of us, the one that feeds dreams and keeps hope alive. Is there life on Mars? We walk in his submerged dream, towards the place with the best view, in order to discover the answer.

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?

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