David Bowie’s Blackstar

The video to David Bowie’s “Blackstar” overpowered me immediately when it was released on 19 November last year. It is a visual poem and a symbolic feast. Despite the iconic yellow smiley face flashed at the viewer at the very beginning of it, it penetrates deep. The solar eclipse from the opening scene brought to mind the alchemical Black Sun, associated with death and putrefaction. The nigredo or the black stage in alchemy is the chaotic state in which all elements are separated and swirling around in a dance of creation and destruction. During the solar eclipse, when our star turns black, the ego becomes overshadowed and must yield its power to the serpentine forces of chaos and death. In the opening scenes, we see the “Starman” who has left his mortal coil; yet later we find out that his skull is encrusted with jewels. A beautiful woman, majestically swinging a tail like an Egyptian goddess, opens the Starman’s helmet, unveiling his glittering and indestructible hidden essence. She proceeds to carry the skull like a relic though a dreamy scenery of an oriental looking city. The first stanzas say:

In the villa of Ormen, in the villa of Ormen
Stands a solitary candle, ah-ah, ah-ah
In the centre of it all, in the centre of it all
Your eyes

On the day of execution, on the day of execution
Only women kneel and smile, ah-ah, ah-ah
At the centre of it all, at the centre of it all
Your eyes, your eyes

Ormen is a mysterious reference; most interpreters seem to go with the idea that it relates to a Norwegian word for snakes. It does seem to be a profound homage to women’s power as the guardians of the mystery of life and death, the magnificently swinging tail signaling a connection with the root chakra, the earth and the rising of the kundalini energy. The blindfold suggests the awakening of inner vision of the centre, symbolized by the solitary candle. The forces of chaos are further suggested by the peculiar shaky dance movements of the three figures while the circle of women moving in trance brings to mind shamanism and ecstatic wisdom achieved at the moment of dissolution of boundaries.

What follows is a moment of self-irony with Bowie holding a book like a communist leader speaking to a crowd. I absolutely love the following stanza:

I can’t answer why (I’m a blackstar)
Just go with me (I’m not a filmstar)
I’m-a take you home (I’m a blackstar)
Take your passport and shoes (I’m not a popstar)
And your sedatives, boo (I’m a blackstar)
You’re a flash in the pan (I’m not a marvel star)
I’m the great I am (I’m a blackstar)

I love the jester tone of self-mockery accompanying this dialogue with Death/God/Higher Power. Do not make me into a prophet, he seems to be saying. Someone else will replace me as an idol soon enough:

Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a star star, I’m a blackstar)

The song oscillates between high and low tones of the sacred and the profane. When he reaches the mystical heights, the music sounds almost almost like a Gregorian chant, in other parts the trademark Bowie trickster rock is palpable. I love the three scarecrows in the field, echoing Jesus hanging on the cross with the two thieves on his sides. Their pelvises move rhythmically. It is hard to decide if the dance is that of ecstasy or are these bodies writhing in excruciating pain? But do we need to decide? Pain and ecstasy, death and creation are morphing into each other in the sky where the Black Star shines. The last minute of the video conveys a feeling of the dread of dying. How did a dying hand manage to scribble such an eloquent testimony of the most final of all experiences?

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16 Responses to David Bowie’s Blackstar

  1. Well -written and one of the most level-headed approaches to the video’s symbolism I’ve read so far.

    There are all sorts of weird Youtube videos being broadcast at present by fundamental Christians mostly with references to Bowie’s alleged Satanism, his interest in the ‘evil’ Alastair Crowley and the Kabbalah. The very concept of a symbol is so very poorly-understood by some particularly Americans, who are often so literal in thinking, describing the video as creepy, scary and weird and a ‘Satanist ritual’, primarily i suspect from the ambiguity of three scarecrows on crosses and jewelled skull. Bowie may have single-handed kick-started a revived interest in the esoteric but also a backlash against in some less enlightened quarters

    ‘How did a dying hand manage to scribble such an eloquent testimony of the most final of all experiences?’ you may well ask. Considering that some suffering from liver cancer cannot even dress themselves, yet alone record a whole album in utmost secrecy, while others would be twittering every day telling the whole world how good or bad they felt with their cancer, none of this with Bowie, just great dignity, realisation of one last creative spurt, using death as an inspiration. He always was a consummate showman, self-publicist and mythologiser, and he’s left something to which there can never be a definitive answer as he cannot tell us now. Have you seen the other video ‘Lazarus’, it seems related, and perhaps an even more personal adieu statement ?

    Your observation about Bowie being a jester/trickster is pretty sharp, along with Black sun imagery. Many are making much of the fact that like another Capricorn, Elvis Presley (who shared his b. day with Bowie) also sang a song first entitled ‘Blackstar’ which Bowie surely knew from its lyrics contents about departure.

    Bowie’s death and last video quite an emotional experience for so many who grew up with his music playing at parties, with girlfriends, throughout the 70’s and 80’s when in my teens and twenties, until moving on and ‘discovering’ Mozart.

    Thanks for writing this with such well-balanced insight, good vocabulary and style, Symbol Reader.

    • Thank you so much, Kevin. I had no idea about the youtube videos you referenced, and I must admit I had a hair raising moment looking at them. I do not claim to have the key to the symbolism of this song, but nevertheless I felt strongly compelled to share my humble thoughts. I am so glad you resonated with them.

  2. 7128788elf says:

    Thanks for posting this, and the commentary, the best is the last, I could see Bowie’s musical life threading through this wonderful last piece of music, I will definitely go out and buy this last disc, what a terrible loss his passing is, and coming just 2 days after the passing of the great Pierre Boulez, the shocks, are coming thick and fast as they did back in 1970/71. Best wishes and blessings Charles. PS. I think this is worthy of much sharing and comment, so have decided to re-blog it and share it.

  3. 7128788elf says:

    Reblogged this on charles1958 and commented:
    Some of the best for last, this is a wonderful piece, with a great commentary on it.

  4. Jeff Japp says:

    Great post, Monika. Bowie was an amazing artist. I felt fortunate to have seen him perform. Sadly, I had written about the experience of seeing him shortly before his passing. Here is the post, in case you missed it.

    https://thestubcollection.wordpress.com/2016/01/01/david-bowie-4271990/

    • Lucky you, Jeff. Living behind the Iron Curtain was not conducive to going to legendary rock concerts, sadly. But we did listen to great music from “The Rotten West” as the propaganda called it. Anyway, thanks for sharing the link. Your enthusiasm is very contagious.

      • Jeff Japp says:

        Yeah, sometimes I forget how fortunate I was in that regard, but artistic freedom did have its price. Right now, we are experiencing the backlash of ultra-right-wing fanatics seeking to “take back the country.” Things are a little scary here right now. I confess I am concerned about the upcoming election. On the state level, I have seen what a right-wing government can do and how quickly progress can be dismantled. NC used to be a very progressive state, but that has changed in the past several years. Anyway, I hope you have a wonderful evening, and thanks for all you do and the wisdom you share. I feel fortunate to know you.

        Jeff

      • Thank you – the feeling is mutual.

        About the right backlash, I am equally scared. If only every country could be like Canada. 😉

  5. hocuspocus13 says:

    Upon the last bit of time my mind wandered about how my soul lived its life

    Where would it take me…

    jinxx 💜 xoxo

  6. I’ve read a lot of stuff about Bowie the last few days and I have to tell you this is the most interesting by far!

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