Regarded by many as one of David Bowie’s best songs, Life on Mars is often analyzed for it’s surreal lyrical content and apparent vagueness of meaning. The song was released on Bowie’s Hunky Dory album in December, 1971 and later as a UK single in June, 1973 and was a major hit for the rock legend.
But what do the lyrics mean? Are they as surreal as they appear on their surface? In many ways, Life on Mars serves as the 1970s counterpart to She’s Leaving Home by The Beatles in that both songs are, at their heart, about a lost child at odds with her surroundings and disconnected from her family.
First, take a look at the opening stanza:
It’s a God-awful small affair
To the girl with the mousy hair
But her mummy is yelling no
And her daddy has told her to go
Clearly there is a dispute here. Bored of her home life, the “girl” in the narrative is begging her parents to leave with mom insisting she stay and dad telling her to go. This conflict is reminiscent of the parents in She’s Leaving Home with one weeping at the departure of their daughter while the other dismissively states, “we gave it our best shot.” Ultimately, the girl leaves home and heads to the movies where she is supposed to meet her friend but is unable to find her.
The line “she’s hooked to the silver screen” is noteworthy because it indicates that this is not a one-off trip to the movies. The girl knows what seat has the clearest view and totally immerses herself into the picture show. The bridge from verse to chorus strengthens this idea:
But the film is a saddening bore
For she’s lived it ten times or more
She could spit in the eyes of fools
As they ask her to focus on
Not only does she use films as her escape, she has used this particular film several times. This leads us to the chorus where the strongest case for surreal lyrics can be made but, taking it at face value, it’s just a laundry list of images that the girl is being fed.
Sailors fighting in the dance hall
Oh man, look at those cavemen go
It’s the freakiest show
Take a look at the lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man, wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?
So, where then does the “is there life on Mars?” line come into play? The girl, bored at home, abandoned by friends, and unable to focus on the film, feels out of place. She is not at home in her current condition and has reached the exasperated point of, “maybe I’ll just move to Mars and get away from these people.”
Taking this view of the song, it is suddenly taken away from being a sci-fi fantasy and is a straight-forward song about teenage angst and the desire to fit in.
The following verse, again utilizing vague and surreal imagery, continues the indictment of the media. Bowie is painting a picture of a media landscape so out of touch with real life that the girl can no longer relate to what she sees on screen.
The bridge into the final chorus, interestingly, switches into the first person:
But the film is a saddening bore
‘Cause I wrote it ten times or more
It’s about to be writ again
As I ask you to focus on
It is at this point that analysis of the lyrics takes a bit of a leap. Is Bowie, in this final passage, singing from the perspective of the girl he sang about in the earlier passages?
If so, the song is telling a story of a girl, obsessed with film and media and pop culture, who no longer sees herself reflected in the media she loves to consume. She has been alienated from her family, her friends, and now, through the lens of media, the rest of the world but she, ultimately, conforms to what she sees on screen. The girl, by this interpretation, goes from consumer to creator and sacrifices her own self in order to ultimately fit in.
While often considered a science fiction song in the style of Space Odity, Life on Mars is more like a character portrait from a Kinks album. We have a lost soul who doesn’t see art imitating her life so she decides her life should imitate the art so that she feels a place of belonging. Taken at this value, the song isn’t surreal at all and is just simple concept, told with simple words, over a beautiful melody.
Or it’s about martians. Who knows?