You arrive at the pub to find it strangely transformed. Not the gaping hole providing you with a view of the tempestuous heart of Jupiter's great red spot, no, that was already there. The dim lighting is new though, as is the giant, dripping candle standing on the table... and is that David Bowie on the screen over there? It is, it's a music video from that album he put out right before he died! Just what is going on here?
Sensing another dire misadventure, you begin to edge out the door. But Abraxas the Hideous Armchair Rat and Lord Humongous block your way! Curses.
Your captor looks up from your chair and claps their hands together happily. "Ah, you're here!" they say cheerfully. "Finally, the ritual can begin! But first, let's talk about David Bowie and the use of weird horror tropes in his albums. I think that will help to clarify what's going on here...
I had a dream the other night about David Bowie.
It wasn’t as exciting as it sounds. He was giving me an art critique. Not… not what I hoped from a David Bowie dream, frankly. Particularly since he didn’t like my painting very much.
But the thing was that within the dream I knew that David Bowie had died, but there he was, still telling me with sadness in his eyes that my paintings just weren’t very good. And my rationalization of this within the dream was that the reality of David Bowie’s death had yet to reach this part of the world, this backwater in which I live (Canada). The news of his death preceded the gravitational wave of its reality--news traveling faster than the sluggish transmutations of matter.
When I woke, I was struck by a number of interesting parallels between this strange dream and the last two albums that David Bowie put out before his death. There’s a recurring motif in The Next Day and Blackstar of, fittingly, stars. We know, of course, that stars continue to shine long after they are dead--we can still see the light from many stars that have long since gone, simply because light takes a while to reach the Earth from so far away. I think this is the notion that I was groping for in my dream state--that somehow the news of Bowie’s death had preceded whatever force was animating the particular Bowie that I was talking to. The constants of the universe prevented the reality of his death from reaching me as rapidly as the NEWS of his death.
Now I’m not going to claim that I was given a prophetic dream that gave me the key to interpreting David Bowie’s last message to Earth, but I do think it’s interesting in how it parallels some of the ideas in David Bowie's last two albums before his untimely death a month ago. Both these albums, and the videos that were produced for them, seem to posit celebrities as Stars, shining on even after their deaths. And I’m interested in the way that Bowie seems to want to explore these ideas using tropes from Weird Fiction--like the Weird Tales tradition that includes folks like Lovecraft or Lord Dunsany or William Hope Hodgeson.
That’s what I want to dig into today--the way a number of the videos from these two albums seem to draw upon these weird horror traditions in order to explore some idea or other about celebrity and about Bowie’s own legacy as a Star.
This isn’t exactly new territory for Bowie. Part of the reason The Next Day and Blackstar both appeal to me as albums is that they both take another look at some of Bowie’s earlier preoccupations--on albums The Man Who Sold The World and to an extent Diamond Dogs in particular--in this kind of weird horror unwholesomeness. They seem really interested in a kind of encounter with strangeness that humans can’t fully assimilate. The return to this theme late in life feels almost like a reflection on his mortality or immortality as a star, and I find that use very interesting.
From the set designs that look like something straight out of a Zdzislaw Beksinski or HR Giger painting, to the almost comically minimal designs of the album covers, there’s a lot of odd stuff at work here and I want to explore just what some of this might mean.
Now, there’s a whole lot of Weird Fantasy and Horror stuff dealing with strange stars, of course--stars as baleful entities in their own right. The Cthulhu Mythos famously has the prophecy that when “the stars are right” the titular god-being will rise and humanity will face untold horrors; Dungeons & Dragons draws upon these traditions for their evil stars, which in some splatbooks have avatars in the world seeking to work strange and fearsome powers; Blue Oyster Cult’s strange mythology in their early album makes much of stars, such as the lines from “Astronomy”: “Don’t forget my dog/fixed and consequent”--Sirius, the Dog Star, seems to have some malign influence in the secret conspiracies driving the world... and so on.
And this is something that Bowie takes up in the lyrics of “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”: “Stars are never sleeping/The dead ones, and the living.” So, from the outset the dead are included as actors, still present, always watching. “They know just what we do/that we toss and turn at night.” There’s echoes here, I think, of this weird horror tradition, even if the main thrust of the song is about celebrities.
And, of course, the video shows this main thrust overtly:
The video for the song begins with Bowie’s character and the ever eerie Tilda Swinton’s character talking about a tabloid magazine and they have a brief exchange about the antics of the couple on the cover. Swinton’s character reminds him that they have a nice life, and Bowie agrees: “We have a nice life.”
And yet, we see, as the camera pans, these strange, twitching individuals peering through the shelves.
So from the outset there’s these literal stars, but then there’s the strange, haunting, otherwordly star-entities. The video is from the beginning playing with horror tropes--celebrities are portrayed here as a kind of supernatural menace that ultimately possesses and supplants the main characters: they are the only real enemies by the end, and Bowie and Swinton have been reduced to shambling husks. It’s a perfect horror movie narrative.
Bowie is of course a superstar himself, and here he is painting the class to which he belongs as these kind of superhuman entities. There’s echoes here of something like the ending of Rocky Horror Picture Show--the “superheroes” of the final song (in the unedited release) are entities beyond the human in beauty and horror, things that we can’t necessarily encounter without being unchanged or damaged. Yet, there’s something perversely seductive about Stars--”We will never be rid of these stars, but I hope they live forever.”
This is what pushes The Stars into a territory more interesting than more, I suppose, down to earth comments on stardom and celebrity. We can see the main thrust of the song and it's commentary on stardom, but rather than just taking a swipe at celebrity culture it depicts the nature of Stars as something that exceeds our grasp, that plays out as something we respond to that doesn't translate easily to simple emotions. It’s affectively difficult in that it presents an arousal of impressions that we can’t sort of stamp down into a well defined set of words for what we’re feeling. Might the ability to induce these experiences be part of the baleful power of Stars?
So Bowie isn't necessarily doing something new in commenting on celebrity culture, but he is doing something interesting, I think, in introducing these strange horror elements.
There's some other odd stuff going on with this album as a whole that we might consider as well: there’s something very low budget about much of it. The Next Day's album cover is a square pasted over the cover for Heroes, and the title is crossed out with THE NEXT DAY in san serif font next to it, for example.
I mean… David Bowie had money. He had plenty of money. And yet, we have this cover that, once you have the concept, takes roughly 3 minutes to make in Adobe Illustrator.
We have some elements like that in the various videos for this and Blackstar as well. Some of them look quite slick and advanced, but then we get elements like Bowie standing in front of a conspicuously painted backdrop in Blackstar holding his Blackstar bible with his weird dancer acolytes… clearly that was a lower budget set to produce than the big empty Labyrinth-esque city from earlier in the video. And there’s the strange summoned creature at the end as well, which is clearly a bunch of cloth that’s being lit with odd lights and shambling through a smoke machine. And the video for Where Are We Now has this like stock footage projected behind Bowie’s face on some odd doll…
It feels like there's something going on here, and it might be that Bowie is pointing out the artificiality that he’s working with in his Star guise. Again, not exactly new, but presented in some interesting ways. If Bowie is elevating himself as the figure aware of the artifice, the constructedness of everything, the stage set that he’s working on, doesn’t that feel like he’s pushed beyond the normal confines of our Puny Human Minds? Bowie seems to be upending and calling into question much of what came before in his career through these moves.
Rather than just lionizing himself as a great guy, he’s suggesting that there’s something even beyond him, some strange animating force that isn’t necessarily nice or positive but that is undeniably powerful. Even as we feel horror, we feel fascination as well. There is an affective arousal here, an encounter with chaos, that goes beyond our ability to describe it simply, and far from being repelled by what we can’t fully transfer into semiotic terms, we are drawn to it like cultists to the light of the baleful stars.
What exactly might that animating force be?
Well, one of the recurring motifs not only through this video but in the videos for Blackstar and for Lazarus is this imagery of people moving in jerking ways, ways that jump from one key frame (to borrow a term from animation) to another without a lot of tweening--we see these poses but the motion between the poses is sped up, blurred, almost too fast to see. We have in two of these videos characters or entities seemingly pulling the strings of other characters, acting as a kind of animating force and presence that certainly isn’t portrayed as, like, ~~the artist’s muse~~. These are strange scrabbling entities shaping humans to their own desires.
There’s easy sort of lines of interpretation here that I think present themselves pretty obviously. You could see this as stardom taking over one’s life, or the artistic process itself taking over. I don’t think this is a direct allegory, though--it’s a suggestion of possibilities but there’s all these other correspondences that confound any easy one to one relationship between image and symbolic meaning. The twitching, spasming dancers in the video for Blackstar, for example, don’t quite fit these ideas, even though they have a lot of visual correspondence (and it looks to me like the one dancer appears as the creature in Lazarus, as seen above).
Does this mean anything? Honestly, I’m not sure. I can only look at this and pull out things that I find interesting. To an extent I agree with this New Yorker piece about Bowie, which argues that Bowie is interesting particularly because there might not be any hidden meaning--that it’s compelling because it recedes from our grasp.
And yet, I’m frustrated with accounts that point out how difficult it is to analyze things but then don’t attempt to venture a guess at what might be going on. It’s much easier to say that meaning is elusive than to join in the game of interpretation!
I don’t know that anything I say here is The Truth Of David Bowie and the last years of his life. That strikes me as incredibly presumptuous. Nevertheless, he put this strange material out there, it seems to exist to be responded to, and clearly it’s affecting and haunting me enough that I want to try to interpret or understand or grapple with some of the images within this. They always sort of recede. But at the same time it seems a waste to not play with this strange puzzle box a little bit, no matter what monsters might spring out.
And if there's monsters, then it might be worthwhile to explore what their nature is.
The other thing I want to pull out from Stars is the little (almost) couplet that I mentioned earlier--Stars are never sleeping/the dead ones and the living. This feels highly significant for the video of Blackstar because it seems to have some parallels in this is-this-or-isn’t-this-truly-dead thing. This is certainly a staple of cosmic horror: “in his house at R’lyeh," as the proverb goes, "dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” Now, Blackstar is a pretty overtly Lovecraftian video--we have these images of a solitary candle, executions, strange happenings… and we get to the center of the song, which is more sort of overtly song-like than the much more ambiant abstract opening, and it opens with “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!”
Once again we have a weird thing happening where we have a death... but is this death truly final? It leaves us with more questions than answers. Is this meant to mean Bowie dying and being replaced? Perhaps it is profoundly meaningless, but I think it’s interesting to note that there’s spooky echoes here of this cosmic horror aesthetic of things returning when you least expect them, when the Stars Are Right. There's something incantation like about a lot of this, something ritualistic, as though Bowie might inhabit the world in some form again through the strange mesmerism of this work. Bowie himself seems semi-human in this video and the video for Lazarus, possessed but also possibly something strange in his own right, with his button eyes and his strange holy book.
I mean I don’t think that by listening to this album I’m going to be possessed by the spirit of David Bowie. Unfortunately. But the album and certainly the video seem to hint at the possibilities thereof.
I think the main touchstone at the end of the video is something like the Dunwich Horror--a bastard child of Outer Gods that is brought into the world by dark sorcery. In the last confused minutes of the video I believe what we’re seeing is some sort of horrible ritual sacrifice.
Way way back in the beginning of my blogging career I did an article on uncanny movement and the power of movement to unnerve the viewer, and this is certainly the effect the scarecrows are capitalizing on (as well as lot of the other stuff in these videos, like the jerking movements I've already mentioned earlier). They’re sort of writhing in a way that’s highly sexual--lots of hip thrusting and hip shaking--they’re not pleasant to look at but man, they’re moving in some pretty sexy ways, and doing so as they’re waiting for, apparently, their ritual devouring.
I really like the term "unwholesome" for this sequence, and for a bunch of the other stuff in these videos. I mean this not just in the culture wars “is this good for the children” sense but in the sense of something that by its nature is corrupted, perverse, inherently broken on a deep cosmic level. Something un-whole.
It’s something we can see in a lot of Bowie’s earlier work--the dark dealings of Sweet Thing/The Candidate, the strange mythos of Supermen, and of course most famously the uncomfortable implications of The Man Who Sold The World. If you peel back the onion skin of the world in these songs, you’d see the reality underneath where things start to break down. Hell, you can see it in the video for Afraid of Americans, in which Trent Reznor chases David Bowie through New York City:
In a lot of this work we have possessions, identities shifting in and out, and uncertain mortality, whether it be Trent Reznor possessing and taking on other people in order to haunt Bowie, or the strange encounter in Man Who Sold The World in which someone thought to have died long ago turns out to have “never lost control.” The weird genderqueer double of Bowie in Stars or the “somebody else” who steps into “his” body to speak are simply the newest iterations of this interest in possession and identity collapse.
And yet, on these albums the particular way that Bowie seems to repeatedly become possessed suggests to me that, perhaps, even if Bowie did die, even if The Next Day and Blackstar are his last works, something else is going to linger on and continue to haunt the inner flesh of the world. It’s creepy as hell but kind of fascinating and cool. If the typical artistic gesture, dating all the way back to Gilgamesh saying that his story and his walls will live on beyond him, is to hold up artistic work as the paragon achievement that will live on after them, then Bowie seems to take that in a new direction.
He seems to suggest that even if he dies, the hideous shoggoth that he welcomed into the world will slouch on within him.
And I think that’s beautiful.
This is weird material, no matter what way you slice it, and while the weirdness, and the attendant nervous laughter that comes with it might come off as flippant, I don’t want to be flippant about David Bowie's death and his last albums. It was a shock to hear that he died, particularly as I heard about Blackstar’s release after hearing about Bowie’s death, so I encountered something I loved, truly loved, only AFTER finding out that this was it, I’d get no more. It’s so clear that there’s so much more for Bowie to do here, such interesting directions for him to take this work… and that’s cut off from us now.
But even as I'm upset about this particular bullshit that is David Bowie dying of cancer, there’s so much here that we’ve been given to work through (though not everything--he can’t give everything away, after all) that it’s hard not to be incredibly excited.
And it feels like Bowie is suggesting that, like a star, his light is going to keep glowering down on everything long after he’s gone, and with so much to work through, so much to explore on these last albums and last videos, it’s hard to deny the claim.
Bowie keeps defining himself in Blackstar in the negative--I’m not a film star, I’m not a Marvel star (how topical…)--and I don’t think we get a clear picture of what that means exactly, what a blackstar is. But if someone is taking his place and bravely crying “I’m a blackstar!” then it seems as though whatever these liminal qualities are, they’re going to keep existing within the world.
And hey, if the ritual goes as planned, we might be able to bring him back in your body! Lord Humongous, strap our old friend to the table and let's begin the service! Ia! Ia! Bowie ftagn! Summon the ever-circling skeletal family! Ia! Ia! The Stars are out tonight!
The Stars are out tonight!
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COMING SOON: NEIGHQUIEM FOR A DREAM! A COLLECTION OF ESSAYS ON MY LITTLE PONY