Manuscripts Burn


"Manuscripts don't burn"
- Mikhail Bulgakov

Hi, I'm horror and science fiction author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Multimedia Extravaganza: The Long-Awaited Return of "Life on Mars!"

In honor of the return of "Life on Mars" this week after two agonizing months, we'll be taking a break from your regularly scheduled web novella. Please enjoy my fan commercial above and my interpretation of the song lyrics below. Please make sure to watch the show Wednesday night and tell your friends. I would hate to see another brilliant science fiction show die an ignominious death because people would rather tune in to "Wife Swap."


You know how some songs make you say, "Oh I love that song but what the Hell is it about?" David Bowie seems to be a master of this, with dense lyrics that may just be pure nonsense or may be so deep you'll just never get it. Who knows? Anyway, I've been feeling this problem acutely since Life on Mars started playing on TV and I've been wracking my brain over the lyrics of its namesake song. I eventually got fed up and started looking it up online. People have a lot of ideas, but there doesn't seem to be a consensus. So here is my humble interpretation, line by line and then an overall conclusion at the bottom.

It's a god-awful small affair
To the girl with the mousy hair

Ok, so this first verse is a little play or story. The girl is getting yelled at by her parents about something utterly insignificant to her (possibly about meeting her boyfriend at the movie theater.) She's disdainful of them because whatever they're yelling about, it's a "god-awful small affair" to her. And why mousy hair? Well, this puts her in contrast with the movie stars. A movie star has blond hair, or maybe is a brunette or a redhead. You would never describe a movie star as having "mousy" hair. So the girl is ordinary, normal, bland, pedestrian - whatever else she is, she isn't a movie star.

But her mummy is yelling "No"
And her daddy has told her to go

They kick her out of the house.

But her friend is nowhere to be seen
Now she walks through her sunken dream
To the seat with the clearest view

I'm not 100% clear whether the parents were yelling about her boyfriend or something else. Either way, her boyfriend doesn't meet her at the movies. So she's depressed as she sits down.

And she's hooked to the silver screen

Now this is important. As I see it, the song is about the difference between the real world and the movie world. Notice how the girl is "hooked" to the silver screen because she is desperate for the movies to take away her pain, or help her forget, or whatever. She desperately WANTS it to be fulfilling.

But the film is a saddening bore
For she's lived it ten times or more

But the movie is NOT fulfilling. Either it's a bad movie or she's too full of her own emotions to let it carry her away. Or maybe the movie is not as exciting as the things she's done in real life over and over (which seems unlikely.) More likely she's seen this type of movie so many times she knows exactly what's coming.

She could spit in the eyes of fools
As they ask her to focus on

She's probably still angry at her parents or her boyfriend. But the "fools" she's consciously referring to is the movie producers (or directors, or whatever) who expect her to like this drivel.

Sailors fighting in the dance hall
Oh man! Look at those cavemen go
It's the freakiest show
Take a look at the Lawman
Beating up the wrong guy

This is where the song goes really up tempo. This is all the stuff that's going on in the movie (or in movies in general.) Sailors dancing like in a musical, cavemen like in a prehistoric flick (or maybe the "cavemen" part is a jibe at the sailors.) A cops and robbers movie. This stuff actually sounds interesting and Bowie sings it like it's interesting and it's clearly nothing that the girl with the mousy hair has lived "ten times or more." This is where I get the impression that it's not actually a bad movie, but she is just still too angry to get lost in the power of cinema.

Oh man! Wonder if he'll ever know
He's in the best selling show

Kind of a snarky comment about the cop. He's just a character in a movie, so he can't possible know if his movie is a blockbuster or not.

Is there life on Mars?

The central question of the song. It could mean a couple of things. A) Going with the movie theme, it could be describing a science fiction type movie. B) The girl is so fed up with her terrestrial life that she wants to go as far away as possible to Mars. C) The song's narrator is so disgusted by the crass commercialism of human life that he hopes there's life elsewhere. I think in this first chorus it's a combination of A and B and in the second chorus it's very clearly C.

It's on America's tortured brow
That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow

The play or story is over in the second verse. Now we're talking about broad generalities of consumer culture. The girl in the story was just a victim of a society that values pop culture as the remedy for all ills. Basically, Mickey Mouse used to be just a cute little cartoon character. But he grew up to be a cash cow, allowing the Disney Empire with all its pop culture dreck to flood the world.

Now the workers have struck for fame
'Cause Lennon's on sale again

This part's kind of complicated. It's kind of about communism, but kind of not. The workers used to strike for benefits and money, but now they're striking for "fame" in other words, they don't understand why they can't be movie stars. John Lennon went from being working class to being bigger than Jesus. But he's on sale again - he sold out. Also, there's kind of a Lennon/Lenin homonym thing, especially implied following a line about workers. Maybe Lenin has sold out, too.

See the mice in their million hordes
From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads

This is saying people are tiny creatures and is also a callback to the girl with the "mousy" hair. Ibiza is a Spanish island known for English tourists, kind of how Americans see Cancun. The Norfolk Broads is a network of rivers in England, kind of how Americans see Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. So I guess this is a funny way of saying all the English people - sort of how we might say from Maine to California or from the Atlantic to the Pacific. But I also think this refers to humanity as a whole, and Bowie just couched it this way because he is English.

Rule Britannia is out of bounds
To my mother, my dog, and clowns

"Rule, Brittania!" is a British patriotic song, but not the national anthem, sort of like "God Bless America." I take this bit to mean that we satisfy ourselves with the pervasiveness of pop culture by claiming that some things are out of bounds for pop - God or family or country or what have you. So, "Rule Brittania is out of bounds" is a way of saying, "You can commercialize everything else, but you can't commercialize patriotism!" Which he then immediately and sarcastically negates by saying it's only out of bounds to a few people - in other words, you're fooling yourself if you really think you can't commercialize everything.

But the film is a saddening bore
'Cause I wrote it ten times or more
It's about to be writ again
As I ask you to focus on

I guess this is Bowie, or the narrator, saying that he's contributing to the malevolence of pop culture himself. He's the one who's asking you to forget your sorrows in the movies. Not only that, he keeps churning out the same crap over and over again. That's why the girl with the mousy hair keeps seeing the same crap over and over again. He's the fool whose eye the girl was ostensibly spitting in during the first verse.

Conclusion: The impression I get is that people's lives are so miserable that they only have solace in pop culture, escaping into movies. People are the metaphorical mice and the literal mouse (Mickey) is a metaphorical monster preying on us. This situation is so miserable, that we can only hope the people on Mars have it better, and maybe we can escape there someday.


  1. Wow, that's a really good exegesis of the song lyrics. I never sat down and figured out all the implications like this, but one thing I find interesting, besides the Lennon/Lenin wordplay, is that a few years later John Lennon and David Bowie co-wrote a song called "Fame." It gives a nice foreshadowed twist to: "all the workers have struck for 'Fame'/'cuz Lennon's on sale again."

  2. I applaud you on the use of the word "exegesis," which I naturally immediately knew was an exposition or explanation of a text, especially a religious one. No need for any further "elucidation" on that topic. However, I am fascinated to learn what you said about Lennon and Bowie writing a song called "Fame." As I pointed out above Bowie seems to pride himself on his many (or "plethora") levels of meaning. It makes me wonder if he really would have "scrivened" that song as a reference to "Life on Mars," or if it was just a happy coincidence (or "serendipity.") In any case, it wouldn't be the first time he refernced his old songs - see "Ashes to Ashes."


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