On November 19, 2015, I fell in love with a song that had just been posted on YouTube. Accompanied by a surrealist 10-minute music video, this was what can only be classified as “weird shit.” The song was called Blackstar, by David Bowie.
From the opening moments, all I could easily discern was that Major Tom had made it to some unknown planet, far from our own, floating somewhere in the technicolor murk of Bowie’s universe. But what had the rest of it meant — the convulsing masses, the gyrating scarecrows, that black star? I wasn’t sure. I assumed it was commentary on religion, maybe even on celebrity. But I couldn’t have been sure. All I knew was that it was brilliant. With Bowie, it always was.
It was more brilliant than I could have understood, because what Bowie did, not just with that song, but with the entire album — and specifically the music videos posted to YouTube — was to, in the simplest of terms, troll the entire Internet in a way that I’m pretty sure is unprecedented. (And it’s appropriate, for anybody who’s seen Labyrinth… Which hopefully is everyone. Otherwise you don’t get the title of this piece. But, on the other hand, you don’t have the nightmares I have from watching it as an impressionable child… Also, speaking of the title, what exactly is the difference between trolls and goblins? Maybe goblins are always evil, but trolls can be good, like those awful ’90s toys. They seem pretty similar to me, though. Not sure what the difference is. I’ll consult the authority on this matter. If you know who that might be, let me know. I’m on the hunt for answers.)
Certainly, this isn’t the first time that an object placed in the digital archive has taken on a different meaning after the death of a person. The most common example we might think of, unfortunately, is a cryptic Facebook post left by a shooter in the days leading to a massacre. But we’ve never before seen an artist take advantage of the power of the digital space to do something quite like this. It was Bowie’s final act, and it’s just as thought-provoking as the rest of his career.
At the time at which I discovered the song on YouTube, it was just beginning to blow up, with perhaps 10 million views. (It now has 23 million and counting.) All of the commenters were — as commenters are wont to do — theorizing as to the hidden meanings of the video. The theories were all distinctly different, yet shockingly homogenous. Some said the video was about religion. Others, more specifically, said it was satanic — and most likely encouraged other commenters to visit their YouTube channel, where they can prove to you that Barack Obama, Beyoncé and Bill Nye are part of some satanic trinity that is plotting to destroy the universe. Just FYI, the evidence isn’t exactly air-tight. And others posited that ubiquitous theory: Illuminati — and most likely encouraged commenters to visit their YouTube channel, where they can prove to you that Barack Obama, Beyoncé and Bill Nye are part of some Illuminati conspiracy that is plotting to destroy the universe. I’m pretty sure that Beyoncé isn’t part of some Illuminati conspiracy. Coldplay, however, I wouldn’t rule out. Their involvement in such a thing might explain why they didn’t show up to the Super Bowl. Then again, in my book, Coldplay hasn’t existed since the very early 2000s.
And you know who apparently wasn’t much of a Coldplay fan? David Bowie, who gave us the clues to understanding Blackstar and its music video (and, truthfully, all the other songs on the album), but not enough context. None of it seemed terribly unusual for a David Bowie music video; we just had to put the puzzle pieces together to decipher what it really meant, which seemed pretty cut and dry. But then, last month, we learned that it really wasn’t at all.
Because on January 10, 2016, as you all know, Bowie died. And we began to realize that we never even remotely understood what Blackstar was trying to warn us. Hell, we didn’t even understand what the comparably direct Lazarus was trying to say.
I believe that Bowie is trying to say something deeper, to comment on celebrity culture and our worship of fame and those endowed with it. But on a more basic level, Bowie was testing our knowledge of him — wholly appropriately. Did we worship him, a celebrity, whom we didn’t even understand?
The New York Times has since put together a few of the pieces. The most important one regards the namesake, and to understand what it means — or at least what it very likely means — you would have to understand Bowie’s taste in music. More specifically, you’d have to understand his love for Elvis Presley, who once sang a little-known song called, of all things, Black Star. The lyrics go like this:
Every man has a black star
A black star over his shoulder
And when a man sees his black star
He knows his time, his time has come.
David Bowie is the black star, the harbinger of death, the end of all things. He’s not only seen his black star, not only realized that his time has come, but he’s come to show everyone else. He was a black star, sending us a very direct message in the form of a black star, but we didn’t understand, because we couldn’t. Because he didn’t want us to. Because he trolled us, and it was absolutely intentional and absolutely brilliant.
Bowie was even more direct in his lyrics to Lazarus:
Look up here, I’m in heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me now
It’s a poignant and admittedly painful message, that we worshipped a man we didn’t understand. It’s hard to look back and to see these videos as cries for help. But he knew they wouldn’t be answered. He knew that we wouldn’t understand, and that was, in the end, the point, that we could analyze all we wanted, that we could worship him all we wanted and hold some naive pretense of familiarity with him. But we didn’t even know he was dying when he was giving us the clues. We didn’t know him. We saw the black star without seeing. And it makes me think of this stanza from Blackstar:
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 starstar, I’m a blackstar)
Do you think we’ll listen then? Will we even understand?