Friday, January 29, 2010
Space Oddity by David Bowie
“Why I grow up, I want to an astronaut.”
That was my line to the ever present “what do you want to be when you grow up?” questions during the first ten years of my life. I don’t know if it was Star Wars, Star Trek or just something else but space fascinated me when I was a kid. I have clear memories of playing my mom’s car pretending it was a space ship with my brother and loving the fantasy.
There was one problem. I almost always got air sick when I got on planes. I’ve since outgrown this but it was definitely an issue growing up and eventually I realized that this would be a problem as traveling to space is far more stressful on the body then a commercial airplane flight. So the dream diminished.
The in 1995, I saw Apollo 13 and for a moment I was drawn back into the fantasy of space travel, the heroics, the ingenuity and that dangerous frontier that continued the American tradition of exploration.
During the MTV Movie Awards that year, Apollo 13 was nominated for best picture and when they announced the nominees the music they played behind the image of Tom Hanks looking out into space was “Space Oddity.”
“Though I’ve crossed one hundred thousand miles, I’m feeling very scared and I think my spaceship knows which way to go.”
That was all of “Space Oddity” I heard. I searched through the internet and eventually figured out that it was David Bowie, went out and got a greatest hits collection and was simply memorized by what I heard.
Y’know that whole Madonna reinvention thing, yeah David Bowie did it first. Portraying different characters in his albums and shows, Bowie was as much a modern performance artist as a pop musician. Well, maybe pop musician isn’t quite the right fit, because this man experimented with music sounding not all that different then modern music artist of his time but something about “Space Oddity” connects in a meaningful accessible way.
In “Space Oddity,” Bowie tells the story through the exchanges heard on the communications between ground control and major Tom. The song combines the sounds of a acoustic guitar with ghost-like synthesizers that describe the sounds of the space shipping launching as well as the solitude and mystery of space.
The story starts with the lift-off and develops into a tragedy. For some reason Major Tom panics asks ground control to tell his wife that he loves her. Ground control sees that Major Tom’s “circuits are dead” and lose communication with Major Tom.
Like the situation in Apollo 13, “Space Oddity” captures the panic, the mystery and tragedy that is sometimes involved in space travel. Bowie’s voice can be both detached when he is ground control setting up the launch and also filled with passion and desperation when he is speaking as Major Tom.
“Space Oddity” uniquely tells a story in a way that few pop songs attempt. As weird as it may have sounded at the time with its synthesized transitions and unique subject matter, it captures the wonder and mystery of space travel, which inspired generations.
Kids now don’t seem too interested in space travel. I once took a group of high school students to Kennedy Space Center and while I was fascinated by the tours, other people there who were in my parents generations were almost brought to tears. However, my students didn’t really care.
The world is different now, our country has different priorities. But every once in a while it’s nice to think of the idea of space travel. No so much the reality of it but that feeling I had when I was a kid, the wonder and the adventure. And nothing brings that back like the amazing journey David Bowie takes us on with Major Tom’s unforgettable adventure.