The post-war period, from 1945 to approximately 1970 — was a heady period of cultural and technological optimism in the United States. America and the world believed that it was possible to eradicate poverty, and expand the reach of humanity to the far ends of the universe. Industrialism, science and technology were the driving engines of the economy, producing surpluses of goods and services that lifted the standard of living, increased leisure time, and provided good jobs with good wages and benefits.
By the late 1960s, however, that culture of optimism began to give way to severe doubt. The credibility of the government began to sink after the public was misled about the “progress” of the war in Vietnam. A series of political assassinations deepened despair about the prospects for peaceful social change. Social unrest, spilling into the streets, further disillusioned many Americans, and also reflected their disillusion over the War in Indochina and the pace of progress toward racial equality here at home.
With the growing cultural pessimism, the idea that solutions could be found through technology and scientific exploration also was thrown into doubt. This disillusion was intensified by sharp cuts in spending for manned space exploration, beginning in the mid-1960s. By the end of the decade, America’s signal accomplishment of landing a man on the moon turned out to be the end of the era of manned exploration, at least beyond the earth’s immediate orbit, rather than the first step on a much larger and expansive mission, as originally intended.
In all historic periods artists capture and express the spirit of the times. This was no different back in the early 1970s, as performing artists took on the theme of manned space exploration and examined some its more alienating emotions and meanings. This article is about three of those songs, each of which provides a different window on human emotions, using manned space flight as a focal point and, to some degree, as a metaphor.
Music, Space Travel, and Cultural Skepticism
What Music Can Reflect About Our Times
This article focuses on the period of the late 1960s and the early 1970s, when Americans were increasingly disillusioned with the ability of government, science, and technology to solve human problems. The post-World War II cultural optimism was replaced by a growing sense of pessimism. There was increased consensus that maybe human beings could not control their destiny after all.
With this growing skepticism about science and technology, and uncertainty about the future, the very notion of heroism was being discredited. The hero was no longer someone to look up to, as a person with extraordinary virtue and courage, but rather a restless adventure seeker and attention-getter. The hero’s pursuits and sacrifices were represented as being vain and senseless — or poor judgment and hapless folly.
The songs from this era also used space travel as a metaphor for the loneliness and alienation of an increasingly complicated and technological society. The skeptical portrayal of space travel reflected skepticism about our priorities and values in general. The sense of certainty was being replaced by relativism.
David Bowie – Space Oddity, 1969 (this performance is in 1972)
David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” demonstrates Bowie’s lyrical mastery. It unfolds as a complete story, with a beginning , a middle and an end. It is a narrative with an arc. It begins with flight preparations, creating a feeling of suspense about whether or not the mission will be successful.
As the song unfolds, Major Tom, the character at the center of the story, is celebrated as a hero and everyone wants to be just like him — and buy the things he buys. But already there are hints that something is wrong. The stars, he says, “look very different,” and he’s “floating in a most peculiar way”. Even as he is being celebrated on Earth, Major Tom knows there is something going wrong with him out in space.
We are also aware of his vulnerability; he is “sitting in a (mere) tin can”, after all, surrounded by vast and empty space.
By the third stanza, we know that the major is drifting, helplessly out into space and he has lost communication with ground control. If he once took earth for granted, he doesn’t anymore. Still, he is powerless to return: “Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do…”
One leaves the song with a feeling of skepticism about relying on technology too much. The technology that we rely on can, too easily, go wrong — and when it goes wrong, the consequences can be catastrophic.
As a metaphor for human emotions, David Bowie’s Space Oddity reflects the feelings of the “outsider” as he drifts further and further away from rest of the herd. There is, in this metaphor, a feeling of both elevation and isolation — one loses the earth if one goes chasing after the stars.
Harry Nilsson – Spaceman (1972)
Harry Nilsson’s “Spaceman” does not follow Bowie’s narrative form, with an unfolding plot line. Instead, Nilsson focuses on our growing disillusion with heroism itself, and the monotony of space travel as a heroic activity.
Space travel, it turns out, does not meet the narrator’s heroic expectations of adventure; it turns out to be too pedestrian.
The naive, childlike, expectations for adventure are foreshadowed from the beginning of the song, when the lyrics could as easily be applied to a game of “Cowboys and Indians” as they could to launching a space flight: “Bang, bang; shoot ’em up — destiny.” Space travel, from this perspective, seems akin to conquest and imperialism. This imagery mixes guns and rockets.
In Nilsson’s approach to depicting manned space flight, the central character does not experience the tragedy of being lost in space, as he did in Bowie’s version; the worst he experiences is public indifference and his own boredom.
Where Bowie’s song seemed to tap into feelings of insecurity about technology, Nilsson focused on the sheer monotony of the whole thing. It was not at all what his childhood fantasies had promised it would be.
As with Bowie, in this song technology is taken down a peg, but, unlike Bowie’s narrative, at least technology doesn’t kill you in this version — unless it bores you to death. Our disappointment, in Nilsson’s version, is more with heroism than it is with technology.
As a metaphor for human emotion, Nilsson’s Spaceman reflects something akin to the loneliness in Bowie’s Space Oddity. The viewpoint character is set apart from the crowd, but far from being fulfilled from this experience — or getting new insights and discovering something new, as Major Tom has the potential to do, even in his tragic circumstances — Nilsson’s spaceman only experiences absurdity and boredom.