Losing My Wings

Fallen Angels: Loss as Transformation

Planet Earth is Blue and There's Nothing I Can Do

At 20:17 on 20 July, 1969 Coordinated Universal Time, the first humans landed on the moon. Approximately, six hours later, Neil Armstrong, emerged from the Lunar Lander to walk on the moon. During the momentous landing of Apollo 11, the British Broadcasting Service decided to play the pop artist David Bowie’s first hit single, “Space Oddity”. Many have wondered if the BBC had actually listened to the song before featuring it, as Bowie sings about an astronaut that chooses to forever drift in space rather than return to earth a triumphant hero. 

According to Bowie, the song was directly inspired by the chilling last scenes of Stanley Kubrik’s film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yet, references to space travel frequently make an appearance in Bowies’ songs before the 1980s. From the surreal and expansive, “Life on Mars”, on the album, Hunky Dory, through the 1972 album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, through the 1980 lead single for the album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), "Ashes to Ashes”, Bowie sang about launching, losing, and finding creatures in outer space for years. Some have read this persistent theme in Bowie’s work as a romantic reaction to the rationalistic quest to land on the moon (Tribbe). But what I find interesting about the song “Space Oddity”, as well as the rest of Bowie's references to outer space, is how he turns triumph into a disturbing meditation on the loss of human control to a spectacular but uncaring universe.

The song "Space Oddity" perfectly demonstrates this submission to the universe. The song begins in a triumphalist mode, as Ground Control congratulates the astronaut, Major Tom, on a successful takeoff. In a moment that will gain importance as we explore changes in marketing practices in 1960s and 1970s analysis, Ground Control even mentions how the newspapers are curious to see who Major Tom is endorsing in his choice of clothing. 

     This is Ground Control to Major Tom
     You've really made the grade
     And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear

Yet after Major Tom leaves the "tin can" of a capsule he is seduced by the openness of outer space.   

     Ground Control to Major Tom
     Your circuit's dead, there's something wrong
     Can you hear me, Major Tom?
     Can you hear me, Major Tom?
     Can you hear me, Major Tom?
     Can you "Here am I floating 'round my tin can
     Far above the moon
     Planet Earth is blue
     And there's nothing I can do"
     (quotation marks used to denote the voice of Major Tom)

Major Tom has chosen to leave the confines of his space ship to drift forever in the expanse of space. In the promotional video created by Bowie's manager, the seduction of space is pictured as a literal seduction by "stars" embodied as young women, who strip Major Tom of his uniform and bed him. The video even incorporates psychedelic imagery to suggest that there are some "trips" you really can't return from.

Or are there? As we will see, Bowie sung about Major Tom later in his career and that time the trip would definitely fall to Earth, even if it wasn't always the exactly the same Earth Major Tom launched from. The rest of the stories in this path, will explore Bowie’s obsession with space travel in relationship to Michel Serres’ writing on angels. For Serres, angels are powerful agents that move between earth and sky. Because of this, angels provide ways to think about communication and change. Communication systems, transportation systems, and natural fluxes of energy across the Earth are all powered by angels. The stories in this path will use Bowie's obsession with outer space and Serres' writing on angles to tell a very grounded story about the heady role of communication, advertising, and identity formation in consumer's buying habits during the 1960s and 1970s.

Have we landed yet?  

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