David Bowie’s 1971 album Hunky Dory is chock-full of symbolic meaning, from the opening track, Changes, where Bowie distances himself from the rock mainstream (“Look out, you rock ‘n’ rollers”), to the closing Bewlay Brothers, where Bowie sings of his struggles with his schizophrenic brother Terry (“I was stone and he was wax, So he could scream and still relax”) However, no song on the album quite embraces the techniques of symbolism quite like Life on Mars, a surreal journey through the head of a young girl struggling to cope with her family life, as well as a criticism of the rise of commercialism in the late 1960s. In this essay, I will argue the use of language and symbolism, which are used to convey the story and overall themes of the song, as well as what the lyrics mean in my own opinion. Of course, my opinion is not the only valid one, and these lyrics can definitely be taken multiple ways, because ambiguity is the beauty of symbolism.
In the first lines of the song, we’re introduced to our protagonist, a young girl whose parents are having an argument, (“It’s a god-awful small affair / to the girl with the mousy hair”) and tell her to leave before she sees the argument gets worse, (“And her daddy has told her to go”). Given the fight her parents are having, she decides to go to a movie with a friend, who fails to turn up, so she walks to the “seat with the clearest view”, and is “hooked to the silver screen”. Her friend’s failure to show up to the film paints our protagonists’ social life as a lonely one. This is not least emphasized by the fact that the cinema is presumably empty, if she can just walk to the best seat in the house. Her immediate fixation on the film being shown shows the listener that all the girl wants to do is get away from her real life, and cinema provides her with this escape.
As we build up to the chorus of the song, we’re told that the film doesn’t provide the escape the girl desires, “for she’s lived it ten times or more.” This shows us that, to the girl, the film is merely a reflection of her own life, and doesn’t provide the escape she needs. Even art has let her down, as she realizes she cannot escape her own reality.
In the chorus, the lyrics of the song become increasingly surreal, providing imagery of what the girl is supposedly seeing on screen. Specifically, it focuses on characters typically associated with violence, (“Sailors fighting in the dancehall”, cavemen, and police) the titular line, “Is there Life on Mars?” highlights the girls struggle to escape from the realities of her own world for Mars, wishing to escape from her own life above all else.
In the second verse, the song switches perspectives, from that of a little girl struggling with escapism, to a critique of the rise of commercialism in the late 1960s. According to Bowie, “Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow”, which we can take to mean a cash-cow, something so inherently tied to the commercialisation of Disney that we almost forget he was originally just a popular cartoon. He then takes on communism, saying that the “workers have struck for fame / ‘cause Lenin’s on sale again,” a reference to the rise in popularity of communism in the late 1960s in Britain, which is connected to the aforementioned Mickey Mouse line, indicating that communism, an inherently anti-commercial ideology, had become just as commercialized as the so-called “cash-cow” Mickey Mouse. The third lines keeps up this theme, critiquing “the mice in their million hordes, from Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads,” which contrasts the seemingly exotic Ibiza with the cottage-hominess of Norfolk in England, and seems to serve as a critique of the rise of cheap mass-tourism and holiday packages in Britain in the late 1960s. Staying in Britain, Bowie then critiques the idea of British Nationalism, saying “Rule Britannia is out of bounds, to my mother, my dog, and clowns”. This line references the popular patriotic British song Rule Britannia, specifically how it doesn’t do any good for the working class of England, only seemingly benefiting the rich, and thus disconnecting the poorer people from the song’s inherent nationalism.
In our second pre-chorus verse, we switch back to the film our earlier protagonist was watching, although now our perspective has switched, from viewer to filmmaker. The filmmaker concedes the fact that “the film was a saddening bore”, but to him, it’s because he’s written the same thing multiple times before. This implies that the filmmaker struggles with the same feelings of escapism that the little girl does, but not being able to communicate that in his writing in many different ways. The chorus itself remains unchanged, which solidifies that the filmmaker did indeed make the same film referenced earlier, but also implying again that the filmmaker cannot make anything different, for all he desires is to escape, and he cannot make art about any other feelings or themes.
To conclude, Life on Mars features heavy symbolism to carry the themes of escapism, as well as serving as a critique of the rise of commercialism in the late 1960s, to dramatic success, painting a picture of the real world as Bowie sees it, as well as through the eyes of a child with a corrupt family life.