Our first shot: a spaceman, lying crumpled in a bleak, empty landscape. The planet is lit by, yes, a black star. Already, the imagery is piled on heavily: the man who fell to Earth? A fallen angel? Or, as many have suggested, our old friend Major Tom? If the latter, perhaps what we have here is a metaphor for the exhumation and fetishization of the past.
There’s a smiley face on his suit, mind you. Is this perhaps an invitation to not take any of this too seriously? If so, it’s falling on deaf ears, because of course it is.
Close-up. What’s inside the suit? We’ll see soon enough.
But first, our first glimpse of Bowie. It’s a striking image, to say the least: he comes across as some sort of mad, blind prophet, his face bandaged, two buttons seeming to mock his blindness. Eyes play a pretty significant part in the lyric, too: as we see him here, the lyric has just noted for the first time, “At the center of it all, your eyes.”
Back on the remote planet, a girl approaches the spaceman. She has, yes, a tail. What does this mean? For me, it’s as simple as this: wherever we are, we’re not on Earth.
“In the villa of Ormen/ Stands a solitary candle.” And here it is; by the look of all the accumulated wax, it’s been here for a loooooong time.
The girl with the tail lifts the space suit’s visor, and reveals… this. It probably says… something about modern culture that the first thing most of us think of when we see a jeweled skull is Damien Hirst, but they have a far longer history than that. Whatever the case, it’s another singularly disconcerting image, and comes accompanied by a lyric about a fallen angel — which, if you were a comparatively primitive culture, is exactly what you might see a crash-landed spaceman to be.
Also worth noting: when the girl opens the skull, we cut, first, back to the solitary candle. The implication of that image seems to be that it’s a single light burning in darkness, a source of illumination both physical and metaphorical; are we to think the same of the spaceman?
And then, a curious image that’ll recur throughout the video. According to director Johan Renck, the weird repetitive jerking movements were inspired by, er, Popeye: “Bowie was fascinated by the way background characters in the Max Fleischer ‘toons from the 1930s moved. Since animators were focused on the foreground action but didn’t want to leave the rest of the frame static, periphery characters would often repeat the same three-second motions for, say, 30 seconds of a cartoon frame. So Bowie suggested to Renck that the extras in his video do the same.” It’s also evocative of a far more modern art form, which we’ve used to capture it above: the animated GIF. (In particular, it’s very reminiscent of this.)
As to what it might mean: perhaps nothing. Perhaps Bowie really did just like the idea of his extras jerking like broken marionettes. But here’s another idea: plenty of this video is about ritual. The entire point of a ritual is that it’s a series of actions, repeated again and again, year after year, generation after generation. Repeated movements. After a while, rituals take on a life of their own; long after their original purpose or provenance is forgotten, people continue to play them out.
It’s tempting to read too much Bowie meta-narrative into the imagery here, but c’mon: that really looks like Labyrinth, right?
Our second glimpse of Bowie-as-prophet, and a neat inversion of the first — whereas his previous incarnation was blind and desperate, literally groping in the dark for meaning and direction, this one is clear-eyed and staring into some future he can only see. The difference? A book. With a black star on the cover. The religious implications here are a) obvious and b) disquieting.
He’s not alone, either, unlike poor Button Eyes. As the Guardian‘s Andrew Pulver has noted, the imagery here is as reminiscent of Soviet/Maoist art as anything else, and if religion and atheist totalitarianism share anything in common, it’s a cult of personality:
And now, here’s Bowie in the attic of a building that seems to be shaped a lot like a church: the huckster, the preacher selling whatever it is you want to buy, his tone alternately mocking and cajoling. He’s somewhat reminiscent of the false priest in Bowie’s video for “The Next Day,” which took a similarly dim view of religion (we overanalyzed that video here). In particular, he tells whoever he’s addressing, “You’re a flash in the pan/ I’m the great I Am.” The latter part is a reference to the way God described himself to Moses, the former an allusion to the transitory nature of life. If this is what Bowie thinks awaits after we die, then it can’t exactly be a possibility he’s viewing with any measure of peace or acceptance.
I mean, would you buy a used car from this man?
From there, it’s a cut to close-ups of eyes, which, as we’ve already noted, seem to play a central role here.
Including the famously dilated left pupil of our hero himself. What’s happening seems to be a dialogue of some sort: she catches his eye and then looks away demurely. He stares back in… horror? She narrows her eyes inquisitively. He continues to stare back. She winks impishly. What’s unclear is this: who is she?!
And now, the video’s final striking image: three scarecrows, crucified on a hill in a manner that must surely be a deliberate reference to the way Jesus was crucified, flanked by two thieves.
And will you look at that: they have buttons for eyes!
As the video moves toward its end, we start to draw together its various narrative threads. First we see the destination of the bejeweled skull: some sort of ritual, where a priestess holds the skull and places it on the back of a devotee, while around them a circle of other women replicate the jerking, spasmodic movements of Bowie’s acolytes. It’s those movements that link the various narratives here, because we never see any of its various scenes — the girl taking the skull to the ritual, the crucified scarecrows, the preacher, the blind prophet — coincide.
And then this appears. It’s not clear if it’s because of the ritual or just coincides with it, but either way: a faceless monster that falls somewhere between H.P. Lovecraft and Old Gregg. This surely cannot end well.
As the video draws to a close, the monster is heading purposefully for the three unfortunates on their crosses. If they looked uncomfortable before, they look even more so now, because it appears their purpose has become clear: they’re sacrifices. As the creature reaches them, we get a brief shot of it swinging a hooked claw at its victims’ legs. Their screams intensify. Eeep.
There’s time for a final shot of the distant citadel, the sky behind it a lot darker than it was before. It’s almost like the light of the sun has gone… black.
And then, for little more than a single frame (seriously, it was a nightmare to try to screencap it): this. Those more versed in symbolism than me might try to work out what the various components into which the star is broken up might mean.
Clearly, there’s plenty here to digest. Imagery (and, indeed, lyrics) this obtuse seems to defy a single meaning, inviting viewers/listeners to project their own ideas onto it. But if there’s a single takeaway, it’s this: both “Blackstar” and “The Next Day” seem to imply that our hero has been thinking a lot about death and the rituals that accompany it (and perhaps, give meaning to it). They also suggest that, thus far, that thinking hasn’t brought any peace or serenity. Whatever else is the case, David Bowie isn’t about to go gentle into that good night. And why would he? He clearly has a lot left to say and do.