What is a blackstar?

Inscrutable. Opaque. Beautiful meaninglessness. Those are some of the words critics use to describe the songs of David Bowie, particularly his grand, 10 minute track off the new album with the same title, Blackstar. The video for the song Blackstar came out about a month ago. I saw it and was spellbound. I watched it again and again. I read about the upcoming album that was due to be released in January on Bowie’s birthday. When that date came, I read some reviews of critics and the next day I read that he’d died.

I don’t think there’s any greater tribute to an artist than paying attention to his latest work. So in that spirit, I’d like to post a few comments about Blackstar and see what we come up with. There’s a lot about the images and lyrics that I don’t understand. Why does the action take place “in the villa of Ormen?” Why is there mention of an execution? Why do “only women kneel and smile?” I don’t have any answers for those questions, and I’m not confident there is any intended meaning for them. But the next few verses, when considered along with the images of the video, suggest an answer to a different question: What is a blackstar?

A good working method is to start with some kind of hypothesis, such as:

A “Blackstar” means a true artist. Why would this work? Well, in the lyrics the singer gives a negative definition of himself:

1. (I’m not a gangstar)
2. (I’m not a filmstar)
3. (I’m not a popstar)
4. (I’m not a marvel star)

This reading seems to correspond neatly with the opening images in the video of the dead astronaut. What does the astronaut represent? One possibility might be a blend of the Starman / Major Tom characters from Bowie’s early career. A closely related figure comes up in the 90’s Bowie: Hallo Spaceboy off of the concept album Outside, 1995.

But here are some interesting things about that image in Blackstar: the duct-tape on the spacesuit, seen in close up, connotes a kind of old, patchwork figure. He’s definitely not state-of-the-art, and that relates back to the Starman / Major Tom figure as being kind of worn, outdated.

The female figure has a tail. Is she one of the “cool cats” from Starman? She is taking the skull of the dead spaceman back to her people who will use it and worship it in a religious-like, ritualistic ceremony.

Now consider another verse:

SOMETHING HAPPENED ON THE DAY HE DIED

SPIRIT ROSE A METRE THEN STEPPED ASIDE

SOMEBODY ELSE TOOK HIS PLACE AND BRAVELY CRIED:

I’M A BLACKSTAR

I hear the voice of Bowie here, the artist behind the sound and vision of his work, saying: Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, the Starman, Spaceboy, they were created out of nothing, lived for a time, and died. To be an artist means letting the old forms die so that new creations can come into being. But the fans, the cool cats who had their minds blown by the Starman, they want to keep the old forms around, practically worshiping dead matter. In this way, we can see that one thread of the song involves an artist’s self-overcoming: having the courage to let past glories die so that new spirits can be born.

Much of the song remains shrouded in mystery. Was David Bowie harboring secrets? Consider that the last song on the album has the beautifully evocative title “I Can’t Give Everything Away.”

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3 Comments

  1. Andrew Oberg
    Posted January 15, 2016 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    Some very interesting ideas Nick, thanks. I enjoyed your closing interpretation a lot. Here’s another review with a slightly different take on some of the same symbols you mention (I found the combination of the images included there along with the text and with “The Man Who Sold the World” running in my mind very disturbing):

    http://flavorwire.com/548737/deconstructing-the-imagery-in-david-bowies-blackstar-video

    Also note that a black star is a black sun. Some deep symbolic meaning could lie there; or it could be a red herring. Let the investigation continue…

  2. Paul j Rogers
    Posted January 22, 2016 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    Thanks for posting this. You mentioned the title track when it was released, and now I’ve finally got around to listening to it. As for what it means, what it references, there are no doubt many simultaneous and overlapping interpretations. My first thought was a reference to physics, human origins and mortality (we are all made of atoms created by a previous generation of dead stars), but I doubt that has anything to do with it. I guess we’ll never know for sure now. Which is probably a good thing. One things it’s not about is this:

    (from the Guardian and written upon the albums initial release): “…gorgeous, disturbing and utterly confounding – although one interpretation of its meaning has been suggested by McCaslin, who claimed it was inspired by the rise of Isis, though Bowie’s spokesperson has denied that interpretation…”

  3. Andrew Oberg
    Posted January 22, 2016 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

    It might be about (in some way) the rise of another Isis, the one who doesn’t carry blag flags around and kill without compunction, but who is rather the mother of a certain savior-type figure…

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