Bowie’s space/alien lyrics express Keatsean negative capability in the often paradoxical–both egotistical and humble–visions of alternatives in anticipation of the deaths of self, the Anthropocene, humanity, and the Earth itself.Shawna Guenther, David Bowie and Romanticism, p. 53
David Bowie’s most enduring persona, even to the present, years after his death, is as the alien Ziggy Stardust on the 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Bowie extended alien imagery to the cover his next album, Aladdin Sane (1973), performed as an alien in the 1976 film The Man Who Sold the World, and then continued the persona of Thomas Jerome Newton, his alien character from the film, on his album covers for Station to Station (1976) and Low (1977). He revived Newton’s character at the very end of his life with the stage play Lazarus (2015), which he was able to see in its New York City debut on December 7, 2015 just over a month before his death on January 10, 2016.
Watch the original 1969 video for “Space Oddity” on YouTube, the video for “Ashes to Ashes,” and check out the iTunes playlist for David Bowie and Romanticism.
Shawna Guenther’s “Negative Capability in Space: The Romantic Bowieverse,” chapter 3 of David Bowie and Romanticism, discusses Bowie’s space imagery from 1969’s “Space Oddity” to the end of his career in the light of John Keats’s idea of “negative capability,” or in Keats’s words, “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Guenther argues that in “creating his space/alien music, Bowie employs these aspects of negative capability not only to artistic benefit, but to engage culturally and socially with the rapidly changing world and several generations of listeners/readers” (p. 54).
I think of it in terms of being suspended: just as Major Tom was suspended between the earth and the stars, Bowie suspends a fixed identity or certain knowledge in his music to establish a vantage point from which he can comment on, as Guenther says, “the deaths of self, the Anthropocene, humanity, and the Earth itself” (p. 53). Read more in David Bowie and Romanticism, which you can pick up from The Bookstore for yourself or request that your local or college and university library order for its collection.
Shawna Guenther, credited with coining the term “Bowieverse,” is a Ph.D. candidate at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, and has published a memoir, creative non-fiction, and scholarship in journals including Analyses/Rereadings/Theories and Beyond Philology.