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What is David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ actually about?

It’s a song that has been played in space, it earmarked its inventor as a wildly creative force and remains a pristine cultural touchstone—but the true merit of the magnificent ‘Space Oddity’ and the typified signature of its creator, is that the depth of its meaning is still often obscured. In the whizzing rocket of the anthem that launched Bowie off the ground – and remains his first masterpiece in the eyes of many who haven’t heard ‘In The Heat of the Morning’ – is just how much sagacity was soaring in the welter of its catchy chemtrail. 

Bowie was desperate for a hit when it was released at the time, and piggy-backing on the space race in 1969 seemed like a handy commercial opening to launch a song into. It was this very notion that led to some people thinking the song was simply a kitsch piece of current cultural commentary. 

Even producer Tony Visconti fell into this trap commenting: “I thought it was a bad choice for a first single [from Bowie’s self-titled ‘69 album] because I saw it as a novelty record. […]  thought the double-harmonies were derivative, and in my own words I said it was ‘a cheap shot.’” However, it’s perhaps the most ‘Bowie’ thing of all that even a derivative novelty track is laden with a depth and originality that was even lost on the producer. 

And Visconti wasn’t alone. The BBC even used the song as background music for the actual moon landing. As Bowie told Performing Songwriter: “I’m sure they really weren’t listening to the lyric at all. It wasn’t a pleasant thing to juxtapose against a moon landing. Of course, I was overjoyed that they did.” Had they perused the various alleyways of the lyric sheet they would’ve found a dark tale of dissociation.

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As Visconti later revealed when the dust had settled on the track, and he discussed it with ‘The Starman’ in retrospect: “David said it was actually a song about isolation and he used the astronaut in space as the metaphor. The song was written in that spirit, being isolated in this little capsule, but seeing the Universe from your window.”

Even the corroborations of this isolation are myriad. But for the most part, they tie together to one uniform image: a disillusioned hero who has pushed things a bit too far and when everyone wants a piece of him, he has fallen apart, disconnected, and lost a grip of the wheel, and there is “nothing left to do.”

As it is later confirmed in ‘Ashes to Ashes’, Major Tom is a junkie, thus, he might not be soaring above the Earth and seeing things “in a most peculiar way” because he’s floating in a tin can, but rather a drug-induced state of altered reality. And then comes the drift of pushing things a little bit too far, much like Bowie’s hero Syd Barrett who had been forced to leave Pink Floyd a few months earlier and for all intents and purposes was floating in his own tin can, severed from reality, having once dared to “guide the capsule” of counterculture. 

However, it wouldn’t be deemed one of Bowie’s definitive anthems if it was about drugs alone. The moon shot was still a very pertinent factor in the track, and not because of the “cheap shot” it presented, but because of what it represented in a society forever getting ahead of itself and the straying virtues of an increasingly capitalist culture. 

Major Tom is appointed as a figure who has “made the grade” but the lyrics never lend a notion of how or why that is the case, they simply want to know “whose shirts” he wears. Thus, we have a pastiche that goes beyond stardom, the space race or the pitfalls of drugs and encapsulates a culture of bewildering excesses, aimless progression, and very few cares for those who are left behind and tripped up by the rat race. 

In this regard, on the surface, Major Tom might be an outsider of the highest order, some wandering hero who has travelled a little too far out in every regard when he pops up in Bowie’s back catalogue. However, the truth is that character is not just a creative invention from a singular mind who saw how music could reach new starry horizons, but someone more akin to Bob Dylan’s closer-to-home ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ antagonist—in essence, someone who is built up, cut-off, and left to drift as the unceasing march of so-called civility, (signified by the political gimmick of the space race that cost the equivalent of $140bn in a disparate era in America),  continues forevermore. 

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