Alibi V.24 No.49 • Dec 3-9, 2015 

I Like to Watch (Instantly)

Bowie Plays a Dead God

David Bowie, circa 1980
David Bowie, circa 1980
Courtesy of the artist
If there’s anything predictable in this chaotic world we live in, it’s that, given the chance, David Bowie will do something very strange. Bowie upheld this truism a couple weeks ago when he released the music video for “Blackstar,” the first track we’ve heard of his upcoming album, also titled Blackstar).

Clocking in at nearly 10 minutes long, the song has three distinct parts. It leads with a rapid drum‘n’bass electronic beat and some orchestral harmonies, with Bowie providing a Gregorian-monk-like chant, “In the villa of Ormen, in the villa of Ormen, stands a solitary candle.” Ormen is a town in Norway and also means “worm” in Norwegian, which, yes, you definitely could read some satanic meaning into, if you felt like it. The religious/culty overtones in “Blackstar” are pretty unavoidable.

The music video, directed by Johan Renck, opens onto an alien planet with a black star burning in the sky, where a woman with a tail discovers the jewel-encrusted skeleton of an astronaut. It’s pretty easy to figure who would have such a glam skeleton—as Neil McCormick of The Telegraph said, “Major Tom is dead. Bowie lives.” The woman carries the skull back into the center of the town, where a circle of women in patterned dresses perform a bizarre ritual around it. Major Tom may be dead, but we sure are all still obsessed with him.

The middle bit of the song drops the stuttering electronic beat and slithers into a vocal-driven bridge, in which Bowie alludes even more to the messianic, singing, “Something happened on the day he died/spirit rose a meter and stepped aside/Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried/(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar.)” The video shows Bowie with bandaged eyes, trembling and spasming in a room with three other people in a similar ecstatic trance. Interspersed are shots of him without the eye bandages, holding up what is clearly meant to be a kind of prayer book with the black star embossed on the cover. The Aleister Crowley vibes are strong here—an influence that Renck admitted to in an interview with Noisey—and it’s possible to read a sort of reverse messiah complex into “Blackstar”: Bowie the celebrity-god is aging, beginning to think about his own mortality and is quite aware that somebody will take his place when he’s gone.

As the song returns to the chanting heard at the beginning, we see the women in the dark village reaching the pinnacle of their ritual: One woman kneels in the dust and the jeweled skull is placed on her back, as Bowie says “On the day of execution/Only women kneel and smile.” The music dissolves into non-melodic instrumental noodling as a dreadlock-covered monster creeps into the field with the scarecrows, clawing at their feet.

“Blackstar” is Bowie eulogizing the death of his past selves while building a new character to play, fully aware that that character will die one day, too. On the other hand, Renck himself has said of the video, “You make of it whatever the fuck you want, I’m not going to push any of my ideas onto you.”

David Bowie: “Blackstar”