It has been 12 days since I saw Valerian, and there’s something I can’t get over.
It’s not the plot, or the acting, or the social commentary—there are plenty of other opinions zooming through the world about all that right now, and I don’t see any reason to add my voice to those, when I supremely doubt I would have anything different to say on most of those subjects.
Instead, the thing I can’t get over is the very first sound of the film. I’ve heard this sound a thousand times or more (and in the intervening days, I’ve probably doubled my lifetime count), but for a number of reasons, this time it just won’t release its hold on me. I’m talking about David Bowie’s Space Oddity. The tune lodged itself into my brain before the film even started—we saw it at our local Alamo Drafthouse, and in classic Drafthouse style, they played a reel of the music video (the 1972 version, I believe) prior to the film, and my love for Bowie, and this tune in particular, dropped me into just the right nostalgic head space for watching this movie.
The problem is that now my head is a tin can, and Bowie is floating inside it. He will not leave.
Typically, when I have a song stuck in my head, it plagues me for a few hours. This is particularly painful if I’m trying to go to sleep, or I’m editing something that’s a bit dry—one particularly horrible occurrence involved an hour in a sensory deprivation tank while I wrestled with Puddle of Mud’s loathsome earworm, Blurry. But this time, all bets are off. David has moved in, and as far as I can tell he will be here until I die. I wake up, and I want to know whose shirts he wears. I go to sleep, and there’s nothing I can do. I drive my daughter to school, and if a line slips out she groans with all the disdain her teen angst can drum up. She used to like this song. I used to like this song. I still love it, but I’m not sure how much I like it right now. Do you know what I mean?
I had a professor in college who taught me a great trick for curing this schitzotpyical disease. He admonished, “Whenever you have a song stuck in you head, imagine it being sung by Bob Dylan.” Fine, as long as the song isn’t a Dylan tune. Not sure what the trick is for that. I’ve employed this trick many a time, and somehow it works. At first, it’s worse—Dylan’s perturbing voice seems to crank up the heat on the mind-consuming tune until it bursts into flame and shoots off into the atmosphere. Relief is sweet, and I am cured. It’s failing me this time. So what’s the freaking deal? Why does this song defy all my experience? What makes it stick so persistently?
The song is epic: from the massive scope of its setting to the stylistic movements it contains, it is immense. And yet, it clocks in just over 5 minutes. As I did with the cinematic components of Valerian I will put aside an analysis of Space Oddity‘s musical elements. That is better left to composers and theorists. Instead, I want to break down what works for the song, lyrically.
Most writers who have made efforts to improve their writing, regardless of genre, have learned the important role played by sensory imagery. Usually, threads of sensory input tie the reader to the story, grounding that story in reality and pulling the reader through the page (or screen, or speaker, etc.) into the world it inhabits. Bowie begins this way—a pill sticks in the throat, the claustrophobic helmet slides over Tom’s head. We feel his shirts, and also want to know what brand they are. But just as Tom is instructed to leave the capsule, we also lose our tether. He steps—a sensation we understand—and immediately he is floating. More importantly, he describes that sensation as alien to him. He is not floating as one does in a pool, nor even as one does in a fever dream. This freedom from gravity is peculiar. With that, the tether snaps for the listener, and we feel a mix of awe and dismay. There is something horrifying about leaving the safety of the capsule, something we’re clued into by Ground Control’s phrasing, “if you dare.” Tom is disoriented, both in space and in his body. Nothing looks or feels the way it used to, and he is powerless. Earth—Tom’s entire reality up to this point—is reduced to simply “blue”. His spaceship is a “tin can.” Though there is no overt danger, all security is fled.
This smoothly, we have traveled from sensory imagery to emotional evocation. Bowie pulls no punches in this song, beginning with some of the biggest emotions known to mankind—the fear of the unknown coupled with the love of God. When Ground Control sends Major Tom his blessing, it is not (as we so often hear), “Godspeed.” Instead, there’s something so insecure about the way the speaker wishes for God’s love to go with Tom. It’s desperate. An intercessory prayer, not one of praise or gratitude. We’re told, just that quickly, that all Tom has got to count on are those blasted protein pills and the love of a God that, in the name of scientific exploration, is more of a tradition than a heartfelt belief. There’s something about that emotional desolation that makes me feel the same way I felt watching Sandra Bullock in Gravity. Horrifying. The meaningless of this love is mirrored and bookended by the love Tom sends through Ground Control to his wife. What good is the love of a God in whom Tom has no genuine faith? About as good as the love of a husband forever lost to outer space. Heartbreaking, beautiful,
And bleak is how things end, too—or, really, how they don’t end. Tom is floating, no longer inside his capsule, having dutifully followed the instruction of Ground Control and leaving all navigation to his autopilot. He circles the ship, impotent and insignificant, and the song fades into beautiful, melodic hopelessness.
I’ve been really burning up the internet trying to get this song out of my head. I’ve tracked down multiple recordings by the original artist, wrestled with a dozen or more covers, and it remains. This blog is a desperate, desperate attempt to wear it out, already. If I don’t stop singing this tune to myself, my daughter is going to run away from home.
So help me out, hmm? What are your tricks for getting a song out of your head?