I know this post will be joining the growing pool of over-interpretation of David Bowie’s recent album release. From the Christian right claiming him as Lucifer, to the alien conspiracy theorists suggesting that this is an announcement of first contact.
I first need to make a confession, I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian household and was banned from all popular music until I left home at 17. Other than glimpses of an interview or the odd film-clip on the television I had never really looked into the work of David Bowie. Even as I branched out in later life to the likes of Led Zeppelin, Dylan, Cohen, Dead can Dance, I largely ignored Bowie. I mistakenly assumed he was a peddler of manufactured shock-pop for an un-discerning consumer base.
Over the past week, after watching the video clip for Blackstar (the title track) and Lazarus, I have been busily watching bio-docs, reading Wikipedia pages and listening to the Best of Bowie compilation that had sat unplayed on my music devices for 3 years.
The main reason for my interest was the symbology in Blackstar. This post is predominately concerned with providing my, relatively unimportant, thoughts on the title track for the album. If you haven’t already watched the filmclip a few times, this post won’t make much sense.
Part of my recovery from the poisonous indoctrination of the Pentecostal Christian movement was wide reading of anything spiritual I could get my hands on. For someone who has read Fraser’s Golden Bough, Graves White Goddess, the works of Aleister Crowley, Helena Blavatsky, Gerald Gardner, George Gurdjieff and other occultists of the Golden Dawn era, the Blackstar filmclip contains several motifs that would otherwise go unnoticed.
Before tackling the content of the Blackstar filmclip, I need to acknowledge the challenging nature of analysing art of this sort, where there is a suspicion that there may be an occult meaning. Here I am using occult in its true sense, rather than the alarmist catch-cry of the Christian right. Occult just means hidden, and more accurately, where the message will differ depending on the audience.
Art sits in a unique position of power in our society. We grant the artist the right to attempt to change our thinking on a range of issues. When it comes to politics, we know the party either wants to retain their power or unseat the opposition. We expect their advertising and media releases to serve their interests. Religious leaders preach the supremacy of their faith without tolerating dissent. Vegans and environmentalists advocate for change to human behaviour openly. Nothing is more transparent in its goals, if not its methods, than corporations using marketing to sell their products. Artists, however, tend to scare the establishment (religion, government or even economic ideology) because they often manage to get their message through to an audience despite the establishment. The content of the message can be difficult for the establishment to discern, which inhibits their ability to counter, dilute or destroy it before it reaches the audience. This has lead to the death, imprisonment or demonization of no small number of artists over the ages.
It is probably safe to assume that David Bowie had long since passed the point where his art was driven by the market, if it ever was. With his own record label ISO (though partnered with Colombia) and a staggering back-catalogue of royalty producing albums, Bowie was in a position to create whatever he wanted. The recent revelation that he was working on Blackstar with the knowledge of his terminal cancer re-enforces the argument that this album was his own message, un-influenced by commercial drivers. The interview with Johan Renck (Director) confirms that the filmclip/song combination for Blackstar was created as a close collaboration.
So what can we draw from Blackstar? Firstly, I put forward my thoughts for consideration. I am claiming no great intuition to the deeper intent of the artists. Unfortunately, with Bowie’s passing we will never get clarity.
At the macro level, I read Blackstar as a warning about the nature of religion. I know some others have suggested that Blackstar is an indictment of ISIS (yes the terrorist organisation) or even suggested that it is a description of Bowie’s Apotheosis and a call to his worship. Personally, I put both of these in the crazy basket.
Any student of the Tarot will have spotted a few clear corresponding motifs in the film clip. With The Tower, the High Priestess, possibly the Hanged Man making an appearance. As I gave up my reading of tarot many years ago, I won’t comment further but others may wish to suggest the significance of these three cards.
The appearance of Major Tom’s skeletal remains on an alien planet starts the film. A human woman with a mouse tail retrieves a human skull embellished with gold and jewels. The skull is placed in a glass container and later in the film clip it is shown to become part of religious ritual. There is a clear connection between this skull and the catacomb saints brought to the public through the work of Paul Koudounaris. The veneration of these bejewelled skeletons related to a Roman Catholic resurgence between the 1500’s and 1700’s after the Protestant efforts to remove the trappings of the church.
Many of these skeletons labelled as saints were actually from people of no religious consequence. Veneration of bones, especially the skull, is a repeated element of religious behaviour as far back as the stone age. The type of dance which is incorporate in the veneration of the jewelled skull in the Blackstar film clip is very similar to that which appears in the film clip for Fashion, released by Bowie in 1980. Fashion can be interpreted as a description of how brainwashed consumers are, blindly adopting the food, clothing and mannerisms that are presented to them. Applying this same thinking to religious worship in Blackstar could be read as a similar indictment of the consumers of religion. There could also be a connection to the shaker sect, which broke from the quakers. Similar shaking forms part of their religious worship.
Towards the middle of the song, Bowie stands against a painted sky holding a book with a black star on the cover. Three passive actors watch him, as if in a trance. It is impossible not to think of the similar propaganda photos and paintings of Mao Zedong holding his red book aloft before an adoring Chinese populous. Can we equate the contents of the book with the black star, to the ‘fascism disguised as communism’ ramblings of Mao? The outcome for the Chinese people, being famine, abolishment of freedom of thought and multiple violent purges would have to be seen as a warning.
Knowing that Bowie was a reader of Aleister Crowley’s work, and that one of the editions of Crowley’s Book of the Law featured a black background and pentagram motif could be relevant. Though when we see Bowie writing in what looks like the same book in the film clip for Lazarus, we could be led to surmise that Bowie is presenting his own body of work for consideration. This can be read with an underlying warning of the consequence, being a Chinese style dictatorship.
The end of the film clip includes a seemingly disconnected sequence where three scarecrow men are tied to crosses in a field of wheat. Christian’s will of course jump to equate the imagery with crucifixion, but that would be a narrow-minded interpretation. For me, this scene brought back images from Fraser’s Golden Bough, with widespread agricultural ritual featuring the sacrifice of a year king in aid of crop production. The sexual gyration of the bound scarecrows supports the sympathetic magic connection. At the end of the clip a dreadlocked, hook (scythe) handed monster appears to kill the scarecrows. This is probably the most disturbing part of the clip to watch. Taken as the standard killing of a male, virile, year king to fertilise the fields for the next growing cycle, it seems self-evident.
We can interpret this sacrifice scene as allegory, for example, society deifies its music, movie and sports stars and then inevitably cuts them down through drug use, suicide or other forms of self destruction.
The piece that I find most challenging in the work is the connection between the wheat-field scene and the veneration of the skull by the women and the priestess. Clearly a women is selected from the group by the priestess, and this activity is cut with scenes of the monster in the field. Almost as though the worship of the skull summons the monster, however, the connection between the two is not clear. This discussion would be much easier if the selection of the woman resulted in a sexual union with the year king, a common piece of sympathetic magic for crop fertility. I wonder if an extended version of the film clip and song exist.
There is so much more in this piece to consider, the solitary candle, the Villa of Ormen, the black star (black sun). No doubt the internet is already filling with papers and posts analysing the work. Ormen, which I first heard as ‘all men’, means Snake in Norwegian and could refer to an attempt by King Olav to force Christianity on Raud the Strong. This makes a lot of sense in the context of this work as a warning about religion. The Christians forced conversion through torture or death in Norway, a particularly gruesome death in Raud’s case.
I look forward to reading the many other interpretations that will come and appreciate any expansion or correction of my own.