Blackstar: Making Meaning of David Bowie's Death
Blackstar at first appeared a typical oddity.
When I posted the music video for Blackstar upon its release, I didn't know what to make of it. Like his previous work, Blackstar was strange, often inexplicable, and surreal. It wasn't colorful Bowie, or garish Ziggy. It was darker and drearier and, frankly, scarier. I watched it, I enjoyed it, and then I moved on, excited for the next reincarnation from the Rockstar's Rockstar.
David Bowie passed away from cancer on Sunday, January 10th, 2016.
I revisited Blackstar Monday afternoon. The oddity had turned to a stark simplicity. These were the images of a Starman fighting a battle, preparing to leave this Earth.
The power of an artist is to create lasting visions. It is the job of the critic to make meaning from them.
By offering a close-reading of Blackstar, I will attempt to make some meaning of its images. And the meaning I find may bring me (and maybe you) some comfort, knowing that it was placed there intentionally. And therefore, giving David Bowie's death a meaning and an artistic purpose.
A reading of David Bowie's Blackstar
An Astronaut (a Starman) lays motionless. On a pan out, we assume he is lifeless. Behind him, a total eclipse of the sun remains still. It is both a great presence, and a great absence.
The Blackstar title (a wordless symbol) is projected over all. It is ominous, iconic, and simple. A Girl walks across the screen, smiling, seemingly happy.
We see David Bowie, bandaged around the head, with black buttons where his eyes should be. He is singing "on the day of execution," when we first see him. He appears to be in a room with vaulted ceilings, like an Attic.
Back in the "other world," we see the Girl has a tail. The moment feels whimsical, a bit delightful. She happens upon the astronaut's body.
A large, domed shaped Candle burns endlessly. We assume this is the "solitary candle" of the lyrics.
Uncovering the Astronaut's mask, the Girl finds a skull, encrusted in jewels. The Starman is dead, but his remains are beautiful and royal.
Back inside the Attic, there is Bowie and now three Shaking People. A pale white man, a black man, and a white woman. Their shaking is choreographed like a dance they have practiced and memorized. It mimics how Bowie is moving.
The Girl with the tail now enters a Labyrinth, leading up to a Castle. She holds the bejeweled skull of the Astronaut in her hands like an offering, something special.
The Candle appears, "in the center of it all," again echoing the lyrics. We do not see the flame, but the build up of years of wax.
A group of Women in an empty space form a circle. It appears ritualistic and in preparation for something.
We see the skeleton (presumably of the Astronaut) floating freely into space, toward the eclipsing sun.
Wheat fields appear.
We now see Bowie in front of a blue-sky background. His sight is restored and he looks bright. Holding a black book with the Blackstar on the cover, he gazes up at something unseen. The shaking dancers, now still, stand behind him cowering in awe.
A light shines directly on Bowie.
Back in the attic, Bowie - now un-bandanged and with sight - clasps his hands together and prays as he sings "Something happened on the day he died/ Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside/ Somebody else took his place and bravely cried."
There are a series of cuts between Bowie's eyes and The Girl's eyes, suggesting they mirror each other. They are both bright, and appear to be smiling. The Girl winks.
Inside the castle beyond the Labyrinth, the candle burns on.
Bowie dances in the attic, with sight, and appears to have fun, make fun (putting his hand to his head and waving his fingers, sticking out his tongue), and be joyful.
In the wheat fields, three Scarecrows writhe on posts. They all have bandages around their eyes, and black buttons, too, just like Bowie did.
The Women's Circle turns to ritual, as the bejeweled skull of the Astronaut is offered up. They all shake, like the dancers from the attic.
A creature I am calling The Dreaded Monster appears in the Wheat Fields, while the Women perform their ritual. It seems they have called him.
The Dreaded Monster stalks the Wheat Field. The scarecrows continue to writhe, trying to ward him off.
The skull is placed on one of the Women's backs.
Bowie in the attic is bandaged again. As the women's ritual continues, and The Dreaded Monster invades the wheat field, Bowie shakes or convulses, then begins to collapse to the ground.
The Labyrinth before the Castle is empty.
What's it mean?
In the wake of his death, I am reading Blackstar as a dying man's confrontation and acceptance of his own demise.
The Astronaut is a direct reference to Ziggy Stardust's Starman - the one "waiting in the sky... but he thinks he'd blow our minds." His presence here as a dead body suggests the obvious. The Starman is no more.
As a Bowie fan born in the late 80s, I can't help but see The Labyrinth all over this video. From the tailed Girl who appears like Jennifer Connelly's character in the film, to the Labyrinthine space before the castle (it beautifully recalls the original matte painting from the film, too - and that gorgeous line "In the castle beyond the Labyrinth"), it is omnipresent.
But of course, it is also a simple visual metaphor for a long journey, and she appears to be delivering The Starman's skull to its rightful place in the castle - like a precious artifact, waiting to be worshipped. Just like we all might think of Bowie after he has passed (I know that's how I spent my yesterday thinking of him - that Great Artist, The Star's Star).
As for the disturbing convulsions, bandages, and looming creatures in the fields, these again feel so obvious now when viewing with the knowledge of his cancer. The Dreaded Monster (he is literally a monster made of dreadlocks) induces fear and insecurity, his presences causes convulsions, the Scarecrows (the only others to be bandaged like Bowie) seem to writhe and posture in order to scare him away. These are all images of a man who is fighting. Yet, the death feels almost inevitable.
When Bowie's site is restored, it is by a light, and a vision only he can see. If it isn't overtly religious, it is certainly spiritual. Although his followers, the Shaking People, seem a bit scared and awed, Bowie himself looks quite satisfied. His sight has been restored, he is glowing, and we feel at ease with him.
In the attic, the removal of his bandages signals to me an acceptance of what is to come (after his encounter with the light). His hands clasped in prayer, his lyrics a eulogy, he hopes for the person that will take his place. And the intercutting, directly after, between Bowie's eyes and The Girl's are the most telling part of the video - they are the eyes of smiling people, of happy people, and her wink, a knowing and happy acknowledgment of the place she is about to take. That wink is just EVERYTHING to me.
As for the women's ritual, I cannot say precisely why women. While their act does seem to bring about the Dreaded Monster, who in turn brings Bowie (again blinded) to the ground, it is a gorgeous ritual that honors the remains of The Starman. I think it is an interpretation of what happens when we succumb to something, like death. In Bowie's vision, it is both beautiful and ethereal, and also intensely human. The women never appear threatening. Save for the Queen-like woman who passes the skull on, they are in normal dress, dancing the same dance he and the Shaking People did. They are all human.
The Starman passes on. Meanwhile, Bowie falls to the convulsions. The Labyrinth is left empty. This feels like a setback, but not necessarily an ending to the story. We are preparing for the finale.
There is also a video, released shortly after this one, for Lazarus.
I have not viewed it yet, and therefore have no reading of it. However, from what I have read from others, and what I can surmise from my reading of this video, it is the continuation of Blackstar, and probably, the visualization of Bowie's own end.
I am excited to view it. I'll be happy to read into it. I will have to wait until I'm ready. If you're ready, find it here.
Losing a Great Artist is losing a piece of our culture.
Yesterday's loss for most of us is not personal, yet it is personal. Because like a Great Artist, David Bowie spoke to us, spoke for us, and spoke of us. And although his work lives on even when he does not, it is the thought that there will never be anything more, never another new thought, that is so terrifyingly sad.
To that, I say, turn to criticism as your aid. Not the kind that tears apart, but the kind that watches and reads. The kind that makes meaning.
In criticism, you will always find a new image, a new insight, a new interpretation.
With this final album, David Bowie has managed to make his death a part of his art. As critics, we can help to make that art continuous, uncovering a never-ending pool of new meaning.
A fitting tribute to The Starman, may we hold up his gorgeous, glittery remains, and for heaven's sake - do something with them.