A week before David Bowie’s death on January 10th, my wife sat me down in front of the music video for his new single, “Blackstar.” The album by the same name was released on January 8th (his 69th birthday) just two days prior to his death, and received wide critical acclaim. And so I sat for nearly ten minutes, mesmerized. I was a little shaken- not as badly as the trembling devotees featured in the video, but close. Because here we have a clear antichrist drama playing out. My wife suggested that I write a review. “I don’t really want to do reviews,” I told her. Not since 2000’s Machina/The Machines of God by the Smashing Pumpkins had I written an album review. Besides, I was quite sure the Vigilant Citizens of the world had already picked “Blackstar” apart for its Satanic symbolism or forecasting an encounter with Nibiru or whatever. I was already late to the party. Says Bowie in his song “Lazarus,” “Everybody knows me now.” This is an attempt to understand the esoteric meaning that Bowie has woven into his final offering; in true One American fashion, an abstract of various observations having a loose theme, which we can then interpret through a Biblical lens.
For all the gods of the people are idols: but the Lord made the heavens.
[1 Corinthians 16:26]
The song and video set the tone for the whole album, which is dark and unsettling even for Bowie and makes his death, which rocked the entertainment world, seem all that more mysterious. But why? It seems apparent that Bowie was attempting to come to terms with his mortality, having been diagnosed with cancer, but at the same time Blackstar is a revelation- Bowie’s final chapter. This is evidenced by many of the album’s lyrics- and certainly the occult imagery of the record’s two videos- which leave fans with a sense that somehow, David Bowie, the enigmatic space man, lives still. Indeed, Bowie the rock star and Bowie the star of film and fashion will live on, if only as an archive of enormous influence, but is there more to the story of David Bowie’s career? Who is the Blackstar?
Blackstar documents Bowie’s final transformation; throughout the album his distinct voice can be heard requiverating over an elegant mix of jazz noir and electronica. This time he teams up with a New York jazz combo to extend his reign as pop music’s premier trendsetter. Bowie’s visionary artistic talent and breadth of influence in music, film and fashion cannot be denied. Commenters around the net mourning his death have referred to him as a “genius” and even a “god.” Music critics uniformly fell on their knees to worship the Space Oddity and his final statement to mankind.
What bothers me is that although Blackstar finds Bowie doing quite a bit of soul-searching, it seems to have amounted to little more than a shoulder shrug in the end. There is no redemption here. The underlying message is there is no God. Really, this is the dominant worldview now, where if God is to be believed in at all, it is only as a mere abstraction. Although we are presented with a tale of transcendence on the surface, the mood of the album is one of emptiness and melancholia- a Gnostic ode to oblivion. And in this case, oblivion feels a lot like a New York street corner.
The life and times of David Bowie has become a modern mythology, where our hero desperately strives for immortality through mystical knowledge. He ultimately fails, but we say “close enough.” As if that’s all we have to look forward to- an orchestrated drama that compels the adoration of one’s contemporaries. Bowie seems to enjoy the praise, but at the same time reviles the poor suckers who get wrapped up in the mythos.
Major Tom, having exhausted all available oxygen, has detached his hoses and restraints and succumbed to his fate: an image preserved floating through the vacuum of space for all time.
In the video for “Blackstar” we find that Major Tom has found his eternal resting place on a distant planet, and although his body has wasted away, his jewel-encrusted skull remains to later be found by a young woman and brought back to the “villa of Ormen,” where it is worshiped as a powerful relic.
It appears that something happened when Major Tom was orbiting the Earth. In awe of the blue planet below him, he became enlightened or illuminated, “The stars look very different today.” Major Tom lost contact with ground control and a few years later he descended from the heavens as the androgynous alien Ziggy Stardust. From then on, he lived out his life disguised as a peculiar human being, finding employment as a rock musician and appearing in a dozen or so film roles. Or so the story goes.
It is hard to think of another entertainer in recent times so universally adored than David Bowie. At least from the perspective of his fans, Bowie was successful at achieving god-status. It is well known that Bowie had a deep interest in the occult, practiced Kabbalah and was enamored with Aleister Crowley- a major figure in Western occultism. It seems this is the mistake we make when it comes to our idols; we elevate them to the status of gods (or extra-terrestrials) and then it becomes blasphemous to suggest that they are mere human beings.
This is not intended to disparage David Bowie. In fact, I have been a fan of much of his music over the years. While some have been quick to accuse Bowie of being a Satanist, based on the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus,” or citing his androgynous incarnation during the 70s, or his admitted bisexual past, I see another side to David Bowie. Although he is an icon in the LGBT community, he chose a heterosexual life. In 1992, he chose to marry Somali model Iman and live in a monogamous relationship. In 2000, following the birth of his daughter Alexandria he said, “It is amazing how a new child can refocus one’s direction seconds after its birth. Everything falls into a feeling of rightness,” he said in a 2000 interview for Hello!. Here he is, essentially confirming God’s perfect design for the human family.
While most people see David Bowie as many characters, I see two people. David Robert Jones (the man) and David Bowie (the idol). In fact, Jones took the name “Bowie” from Jim Bowie’s double-edged knife in the 1960 western, The Alamo. Likewise, the entity we’ve come to know as David Bowie is also double-edged and sometimes gives way to David Jones, who handles all the questions related to mundane human existence. David Bowie, being a very perceptive man, was aware of this tendency toward idol worship. In his song “Ashes To Ashes” from 1980’s Scary Monsters he punches a hole in the image that made him famous with the line, “We all know Major Tom’s a junkie.” In other words, your space odyssey may just be a delusional mind-trip.
As a musician and writer myself, I understand that artists do not always speak from a first-person perspective. Musicians can also be actors, on stage or in their music videos, and sometimes represent a viewpoint other than their own. It can be difficult to discern where the artist stands on the subject matter, especially since they are often ambiguous about it, preferring to leave the listener to the interpretation. As is the case with Bowie, I often find myself seeking out the heart of an artist. What causes anxiety for me is not so much the images in the “Blackstar” video, but not knowing where Bowie himself figures in. This can be troublesome when it comes to artists we admire. This is especially true as Christians trying to discern whether the music might detract from our walk with Christ. Is he like a preacher, with a message of impending doom for the impish women foolishly conjuring evil? Is he like an antichrist, orchestrating a cultic ritual? Is he an observer, a commentator on a society obsessed with the worship of false idols? I’d like to offer another opinion. With Blackstar, David Robert Jones (the man) is offering up David Bowie (the idol) as a sacrifice. There is a sense of detachment here, a casting off of David Bowie the persona into the cosmic ether which birthed his image. David Bowie is the Blackstar; he serves as a substitute- an antichrist character. In the video we see a black star eclipsing the sun.
Echoing throughout the song “Blackstar” is a transmuted voice alternately insisting, “I’m not a pop star” and “I’m not a film star” and “I’m not a porn star” among other refutals. Underneath the dazzling facade of fame, fortune and even carnal pleasure, we see the true nature of the beast, “I’m a black star.” The concept of the black star runs parallel to the occult notion of the black sun or midnight sun and from a Christian standpoint is symbolic of the Antichrist. There can be many antichrists- things we worship in place of Christ, including our beloved pop stars [1 John 4:3]. I’m not saying Bowie is the Antichrist, but he’s certainly displaying the spirit of antichrist, which has a firm grip over many pop musicians. Undoubtedly David Bowie brushed shoulders with more than a few of the Illuminus in his five-decade career; he was their darling. Even if Bowie was not himself a participant, surely he was invited. And clearly he propagated the same insidious ideas, which, through the vehicle of pop music, have entered into the collective psyche of our society.
Curiously though, as it seems to be with many artists who are exposed to the slimy underbelly of the entertainment industry, they have also embedded a warning in their message: Beware what you worship.