Hunky Dory – David Bowie – 12/17/1971

The music video for “Life On Mars?” is as simple and low budget as can be. The whole thing is just Bowie in a white, unadorned room. You might not know he was in a 3-dimensional space. There are some camera pans and some close-ups, but that’s the extent of photographic acrobatics. All the focus is on Bowie himself; quite on purpose, he looks like an alien. He has near-white skin, baby blue eye makeup with accentuated eyelashes, and a nimbus of bright orange hair. He’s impeccably dressed in a blue sequined suit with a stripy tie. To top it all off, he’s talking about Mars.

Okay, he just mentions Mars. The song has Mars in the title, but it’s not really about Mars. It’s about a disaffected youth who wants to escape the confines of literally everything in this earthly life. There’s no space alien conceit or ridiculous drama about the world ending (that comes later). But there is a continuation of Bowie’s longing for transcendence, existential quandaries and frustration with his own human body, just like on The Man Who Sold the World. But the difference from his 3rd album to his 4th is the complete musical turnaround. Goodbye dreary doom rock, hello over-the-top glam.

Hunky Dory is the missing link between David Bowie’s confused and dark lurking on Sold the World and his focused blast of “wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am” on Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. There’s a wide gap there, and the jump from his gothic French man-dress persona to the wild and flashy Ziggy makes absolutely no sense, lyrically or musically, without Hunky Dory. But thanks to the transitional form from fossil to fossil, Bowie crystallizes, and what a glorious crystal it is.

In a way, Hunky Dory is a slight backpedaling, harkening back musically to the Space Oddity days. “Changes” is vaguely reminiscent of “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed,” though much more ironic and kitschy. It was just a toss-off for Bowie, but went on to become on his most enduring and famous songs, covered more than any other Bowie song. It even closed the show on his last concert before he officially retired from public performance.

From about age 12 to today, one of my favorite movies has been The Breakfast Club. Besides being very witty and well-written, it’s an intensely interesting sociological study. The first time I saw it, I snuck downstairs when my parents were showing it to the youth group they lead (I think they knew I was there). After the opening credits, there’s a title card before the movie actually starts. It reads:

And these children that you spit on / As they try to change their worlds / Are immune to you consultations / They’re quite aware of what they’re going through

the younger you are, the dumber you are

I had no idea this was from ”Changes,” or even who the heck David Bowie was. So when I heard “Changes” for the first time years later, I thought, “hey, it’s The Breakfast Club!” It only took me a second to realize I had reversed things. When I saw the quote in The Breakfast Club, I should have said, “hey, it’s David Bowie!” I kinda give some credence to the theory that the younger you are, the dumber you are.

“Oh, You Pretty Things!” has even more kitsch and camp to it, but the bouncy and ironic music hides a sinister undertone in the lyrics. It speaks of the “Homo-superior;” for the first time, Bowie is announcing the transcendence of humanity he yearned for on Sold the World, triumphantly announcing the demise of the human race. And don’t mistake him; he’s definitely not suggesting that we can all become something greater in a fluffy, “everyone is beautiful” way. No, he’s laughing about there being a new form of life on the planet, a greater form, and all the rest of us are going to die out. Great for Bowie, not so great for us.