Bowie’s final studio album revels in death and difference
Black star don’t shine on me, black star
Black star keep behind me, black star
There’s a lot of livin’ I gotta do
Give me time to make a few dreams come true, black star.
– Elvis Presley
★ (or Blackstar), David Bowie’s last, is a hodge-podge of an album. The culmination of Bowie’s career-long shifts among personae, it is a multivocal and, not coincidentally, multimedia work. The video for the album’s title song might be the most evocative part of the whole project, packed tight with visuals at once apocalyptic and Space Age. Bringing to an end the lives of Major Tom and of Bowie himself, ★ glances at once backward over toured roads and forward, toward new creative frontiers beyond the horizon-moment of the artist’s death.
Most of Bowie’s performed characters had in the past dominated the stage one at a time. Here there are four, counting Major Tom, one of his earliest alter egos, who reappears in the video as a skeleton, adrift in space for unknown eons before its discovery by a young, red-haired, not quite human woman.
One of the three characters Bowie portrays in the flesh is given the name “Button Eyes” by video director John Renck, his eyes covered like those of a condemned prisoner. Button Eyes is described by Rolling Stone as a “doomed, blind prophet,” but this description seems inadequate on both counts. He might be “doomed”, insofar as he is mortal, but despite the eye covering we’re given no indication he’s blind to anything. Unlike Tiresias, the archetypal blind (and, probably coincidentally, sex-changing) prophet of Greek myth, Button Eyes foresees and publicly foretells his own death.
Button Eyes’ returns in the video for “Lazarus” might seem to suggest a resurrection, if the title is taken to refer to Lazarus of Bethany, the friend of Jesus resurrected in the Gospel of John. But the song’s opening line, “Look up here, I’m in heaven” puts it instead in the tradition of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). This biblical parable positions its own Lazarus in an idyllic afterlife beyond human contact. An unnamed rich man in Hades, geographically opposite Paradise, calls to Lazarus and begs for him to return to earth and warn the rich man’s family against a life of sin. The patriarch Abraham, on Lazarus’ side of the divide, replies, “between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.” This Lazarus after his death is out of reach, inaccessible. Death for him is final, as it is not for Lazarus of Bethany.
The song’s final verse recalls Bowie’s early time in New York, his first home in the US. “Heaven” here is reinterpreted and reframed as a metonym for the superficially heavenly but physically and financially destructive “rock star” lifestyle that Bowie had helped to pioneer in the early 1970s. He resignedly laments, “there [in New York] I used up all my money / Ain’t that just like me?” A not-insignificant portion of Bowie’s money during the period had gone, proverbially, up his nose. Major Tom has been here too, as “Ashes to Ashes” told us in 1980, “strung out in heaven’s high / Hitting an all-time low.”
Retrospection is anathema, though, to the album’s eponymous track. “★” instead turns around Bowie’s renewed invitation to turn and face the strange, and to find not a white star, not a Marvel star, but a blackstar. It takes Bowie’s death as a starting point, his spirit quickly shuffled off scene to make room for a new cast:
Something happened on the day he died,
Spirit rose a meter and stepped aside,
Somebody else took his place and bravely cried,
“I’m a blackstar.”
The resurgent white identity politics now besieging American and European democracies represents nothing if not a fear of replacement, a violent, sputtering denial of the inevitability of change and death. “★”‘s lyrics, on the other hand, are an explicit celebration of replacement. Major Tom’s skull, though inlaid with gemstones and gold, does not see any further glorification in a moment of resurrection.
His body has suffered a change, yet his eyes are not pearls but black, empty sockets. Bowie’s soul may have stepped aside humbly in the face of the new, but his creative relics remain the object of ecstatic worship at the hands of his fans, just as Major Tom’s skull is worshipped in the song’s video.
And maybe, notwithstanding the cultural nostalgia that continually constructs the “classic rock” umbrella Bowie is too often foisted under, it shouldn’t be that way. The jewel-encrusted skull of an astronaut represents most obviously ostentatious futurity, exploration, and expansion, at the same time it is the cessation of all of these in death. It may be Bowie who sings “I’m a blackstar,” but the real blackstar is that which takes Bowie’s place, as a black hole follows a nova. The anxiety of influence is no less anxious viewed from the standpoint of the influencer.
Outside looking forward
The 1995 album 1. Outside deserves to be remembered for its transitional spot in the Bowie canon as much as for its eerie resonances with our current political malaise. The album, a collaboration with Brian Eno, tells the story of a dystopic 1999 US (or is it the UK?) plagued by “art crime” in the form of highly aestheticized murders carried out by guerilla “artists.” Stylistically, Outside evokes the atmospheric, soul-inflected tracks on ★ and 1975’s Station to Station as much as the hard industrial rock style of ’99’s Earthling.
The plot centers on Nathan Adler, a bureaucrat-censor-detective tasked with investigating the art-ritual murder of a six-year-old girl. Non-linear and difficult to follow, the album conveys at all points a strong sense of ennui and emotional stagnation, the placid dreariness of its dystopia broken only by Nathan’s most severe moments of cognitive dissonance. Nathan is given only a handful of monologues in which to explicate his position, caught between the gruesome murderers he pursues and the soul-crushing police state he serves.
Still, the album’s most poignant lyrics are involved with fear of change, and the worst dystopia Nathan can imagine is so dystopic in part for the loss of personal agency and sense-making it entails. “Step away from the future / back away from the light,” Nathan warns in the regressive call to arms that is the song “No Control.” “It’s all deranged—no control.”
Adler, in Bowie’s tremulous voice that feels on the edge of tears, then slips from a fear of social breakdown to an anxiety about his ability to control his own future:
If I could control tomorrow’s haze
The darkened shore wouldn’t bother me
I should live my life on bended knee
If I can’t control my destiny
You’ve gotta have a scheme
You’ve gotta have a plan
In the world of today, for tomorrow’s man
No control I can’t believe I’ve no control
It’s all deranged
I can’t believe I’ve no control
It’s all deranged
Like those depicted in A Scanner Darkly and V for Vendetta, the police state in Outside is capable of inflicting an existential paranoia not only on the subjects of its surveillance but on its own functionaries. Nathan’s fear of criminal “derangement” (literally de-ranging–a removal of objects from their proper organizing scheme) collapses into (or is revealed as) a fear of the future. Together the two constitute a recurring doublet psychologically vital to fascism.
“There is no hell like an old hell,” Bowie sings on the hauntingly monotonous track “The Motel,” and its characters are trapped in just such a hell, of endless anxiety that explodes periodically in violent, murderous bursts that do not serve to propel any narrative along so much as to give the illusion of narrative. Narratively, the album’s two most proximate predecessors are Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Queensrÿche’s Operation Mindcrime, yet Outside lacks entirely the strong characterization and clear plot structure found in these works, and in Ziggy Stardust. Its ambiguous, nonlinear plot mirrors structurally the disassociation from meaning suffered by Nathan.
“Lazarus” ultimately transforms its transcendent “heaven” into an earthly one that, if hedonistic, is not coded as deviant or immoral (how could much of anything be, in a Bowie song?). Outside, as a dystopian work, is far more pessimistic in its cyclical view. Murder begets murder, paranoia yet more paranoia. “No control / I’ve no control / I can’t believe / I’ve no control” loops and seems to become faster and faster as they morphs into a vorticist crescendo of anxiety, descending circle by circle the hell of Outside‘s world. In the real world, too, our politics are full of old hells that will not die.
★ , as noted above, also lacks clear narrative progression as a work, yet it at the same time demands historical and artistic progress (the brave cry of a blackstar) beyond the end of personal narrative. The only moment of plot on the album that matters is the death of the artist, Bowie’s death, after which there is no resurrection, no Pentecost. The blackstar just arises.
Major Tom’s last dance
The song “Hallo Spaceboy” is Outside‘s return to the figure of Major Tom in everything but name. The lyrics are framed as Nathan Adler’s address to the titular Spaceboy, described as “sleepy,” his “silhouette … stationary,” “very still” like Major Tom.
“Moon dust will cover you,” Bowie apocalyptically intones over and over again in the song, an early foreshadowing of the skeleton unearthed in the “★” video. And this desolate image becomes part and parcel of Nathan Adler’s personal apocalypse of derangement, of unreliable categories:
Don’t you wanna be free?
Do you like girls or boys?
It’s confusing these days
But moon dust will cover you
And the chaos is killing me
Outside, like much postmodernist poetry, questions the coherence of the linguistic order and the social incentives constructed in and through it. Bowie crafted its lyrics by returning to the cutup method he had used in the mid-70s, rearranging words and snippets of phrases often at random.
★, on the other hand, obliterates more than it questions the coherence of the artistic subject. “Spirit rose a meter and stepped aside” begins the album with the move that would, in a linear narrative, end it. Where “Lazarus” and “Dollar Days” convey the inevitability of the nostalgic backward-glance, “★” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away” constitute a more triumphant, if bittersweet, farewell of the artist to his followers in the line of Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” and McCartney’s “Picasso’s Last Words.”
The narrator in these two songs, bookending the album, imagines not his own unending virility and infinite propagation after death, nor (like Nathan Adler) a break in society precipitated by the collapse of symbolic categories, but a death that is at once final and prefatory. What he sees is all of history, and art in particular, not as a cycle of making and remaking, but as a vast sea of shifting conventions and fluid culture, and most importantly of deep and irreversible change.
Yet Bowie’s final and boldest creative move might be best represented by no other track than the nonsense-riddled “Girl Loves Me,” a track redolent of contemporary British drums-and-bass and most especially the trap beats and layered synth tones of producers like Young Thug and Lex Luger. The lyrics, as New Yorker columnist Ben Greenman notes, defy interpretation, a mixture of Polari (the queer, chimerical pidgin of London’s West End), Nadsat (the idiosyncratic dialect of A Clockwork Orange), and pure gibberish. “Girl Loves Me” models what the blackstar who succeeds Bowie’s imposing spirit might sound like, freed from the constraints of genre, even from the very need for signification.
Bowie’s death looms over the ★ project as Major Tom’s bejeweled skull colors the haunting atmosphere of the title track. The image recalls (intentionally or not) Damien Hirst’s 2007 sculpture For the Love of God, made of a human skull leaved in platinum and inlaid with over 8,000 diamonds.
If not a meditation on the mortality of the artist per se, Hirst’s work presents the same contrast as “Lazarus”: the vitality of lived human life set against the finality of death. Art critic Tom Morton observes, “If traditional memento mori are about accepting the universal fact of death, Hirst’s skull is about leaving a beautiful corpse that, with its ineffable durability, will witness the end of time.”
If Major Tom’s skeleton in the “★” video doesn’t witness the end of time, it witnesses at least an end of history, the passing of a divine spark from Major Tom’s very still skeleton to the post-human female cultists of the video’s conclusion. If it is beautiful, Bowie wants us to remember that it is still a corpse.
“This is terminal art,” Morton writes, as true of Bowie’s ★ as of Hirst’s Love of God. “Art for when all our futures run out.”