The Importance of Costume

A semiotic analysis of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” music video

From a young age, David Bowie was an icon: a sex symbol, a front-runner for gay culture, the face of glam rock, a representative of the cocaine fueled underground of 70’s and 80’s music, the quintessential British “badboy”. The early years of his performances saw his identity and gender crises and the creation of his stage personas, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. Bowie’s hit “Life on Mars”, from the album “Hunky Dory” (released in 1971) already drew attention by the unique way it told the story of an unknown young girl, but the music video itself is what really turned heads. The simplicity of the music video, compared to the complexity of the lyrics, represents Bowie’s own inner turmoil.

The music video begins with a close-angle shot of Bowie’s eyes, which are one of the biggest fixations the public has about his appearance. Due to a childhood injury, one pupil is permanently dilated to full size. This condition, known as “anisocoria”, is described as referring to when “both pupils are different sizes at the same time” (AAPOS). This condition was one of the few things Bowie was shy, even embarrassed of, and he considered it to be very embarrassing to draw attention to. By establishing that he did have this condition and drawing such immediate attention to it, he quickly set the idea that he viewed himself as a circus freak of sorts.

Bowie’s outfit throughout the music video does not change, but the meaning behind the teal suit does. At first, the suit seems fitting for Bowie. The bright colors, the fitted waist; it all screams “70’s fashion icon”. Knowing the title of the song, the outlandish, almost alien fashion statement is reminiscent of Bowie’s obsession with space and extraterrestrial life. However, as the song continues, we see it become almost a farce. Bowie’s makeup and jewelry are what complete this transformation. The ridiculously thick, sparkling eye-shadow and matte red lipstick give a clown-like look to his face that is no surprise, but the constant harsh lighting washes out his already pale skin to a comical level. Thus, the pastel suit suddenly becomes an accessory to the pierrot identity he develops towards the end of the song. So rather than alien, we see circus freak. In the last few seconds, the focus shifts to Bowie’s hands, rather than his face, and the two silver bracelets he wears have the appearance of handcuffs, suggesting how imprisoned and trapped he feels by societal standards, much like the young girl the song describes the story of.

This fixation on otherworldly appearance is continued through the lyrics. Bowie describes a “freak show”, and calls out to his “mother, [his] dog and clowns”. Clowns and mimes represent a hysterical outcast, somebody used for entertainment because they stand out from society, much like Bowie. A large part of his fame comes from his scandals and unique stage performances, but this image later forced him into further drug use and social withdrawal. The girl in the song, eerily similar to Bowie’s own experiences is described as doing the same thing, as “walking through her sunken dream”. In his novel “The World and Music of David Bowie”, James E. Perone describes Bowie as an “androgynous outcast”, which is precisely the image gathered from comparing the lyrics to the music video itself (22). For instance, when Bowie sings the line “…the girl with the mousy hair”, the camera pans to the first wide-angle shot of the video to show Bowie’s classic stringy, red mullet, as if to suggest that Bowie is the girl in question. This is backed up by looking at a timeline of Bowie’s life; around the time the album “Hunky Dory” was released, Bowie was going through heavy cocaine withdrawals which spawned a gender crisis, and beginning his relationship with fellow rock star and androgynous queer icon, Iggy Pop.

By the use of bright makeup and lighting on a simple background, David Bowie immediately draws all eyes to himself. The lyrics of the song, which center around a young protagonist feeling alone and hopeless, change the tone of the song from one of aloofness to one of isolation and loneliness. The music video for “Life on Mars?” was Bowie’s cry for help, showing how he felt like a circus freak, nothing more than an exhibit to be mocked or stared at, by weaving the story of a fictional girl into his own real-life experiences.

Works Cited

“Anisocoria and Homer’s Syndrom.” American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus. AAPOS, July 2013. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.

Perone, James E. The Words and Music of David Bowie. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2007. Print.


About Jessie

I'm just a college student stuck in the deep south with very few plans for the future. I like to talk about new wave feminism, guns, classic cars, fish, how outrageously gay I am, and really bad jokes. I don't get out much unless its a GoodWill run or I'm out of mac and cheese. Sometimes I do cute date things with my partner, other times I just stare wistfully at all the cute snakes I'll never own.

Posted on December 15, 2014, in Big Bites and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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