A Solitary Candle: the mystery of symbolism in Bowie’s Blackstar

From the moment I saw the strange, beautiful, baffling video for “Blackstar,” I knew there was much more to David Bowie’s new release than we initially see. Even beyond the avant-garde sound and experimental influences, there was something going on behind the music and lyrics that left my mind buzzing. By the time “Lazarus” was released, I was positive there were some deeply esoteric forces at work behind the scenes.
It’s no secret that Bowie steeped himself in the occult–he obsessively studied the work of master magician Aleister Crowley during his years in Berlin, but references to the Wickedest Man in the World begin as early as Hunky Dory. It’s a common phenomenon that people return to religion at the end of their lives, but Bowie was never one to take well-traveled roads. I shouldn’t have been surprised when I saw the visual references littered throughout the “Blackstar” video. “Uniform of imagery,” indeed…
Major Tom, Catacomb Saint
It began with the astronaut’s corpse. We last saw Major Tom somewhere in space, significantly less human than his previous incarnations. We bid him farewell and buried him in moon dust. But “Blackstar” sees him ressurrected, his skeleton bejeweled, made precious again in death. In this sense, the album itself is something of a catacomb saint: while many would have heard the chant-like harmonies and avant-garde progressions and dismissed them as the inaccessible musings of an artist who had officially done it all before, Bowie’s death turned the release into something magical. It becomes a relic, one final token to remind us of the miraculous career he had as an artist. It’s impossible to look at a Van Gogh or Rothko without thinking of the painters’ untimely ends: Blackstar will likely become a work inseparable from its author’s death. But I don’t necessarily think Bowie meant it to be anything else. It was timed and released specifically to coincide with his passing. This was a sign off.
Excavated from the ruins, Saint Tom is taken by a young girl with a tail—video director Johan Renck said Bowie had specifically requested the tail, but wasn’t quite sure why. Bowie himself dismissed it as something merely sexy, but nothing in this video is merely anything. The tail only made sense to me when I put it in the context of the setting, presumably the Villa of Ormen, as referenced in the lyrics. Ormen, it turns out, is not only the name of a town in Norway, it also translates in English as “serpent.” So that Villa of Ormen becomes the Town of the Serpent, and the girl with the tail could be seen as a sort of uncoiled Ouroboros. In retrieving the skull and bringing it back to the people of Ormen, she repurposes it as an object of worship, beginning a new cycle in Tom’s story. The feverish, vibrating dance performed by the worshippers immediately reminded me of voodoo—the possessed devotees in ecstasy before Ghede Tom, now an icon of death and life, sex and oblivion.
Ghede Tom
And this isn’t even where things get strange. In researching some of the symbolism in this post, I fell down an internet rabbit hole of weird. In addition to theories about terrorism, Robert Chambers, and everything in between, I came across a peculiar tumblr account filled with hypnotically creepy images directly corresponding to lyrics and themes not only in “Blackstar” and its music video, but also to the album’s second single, “Lazarus.” But the Villa of Ormen tumblr was created within hours of “Blackstar’s” release, and a full month and change before any hint of “Lazarus.” Needless to say, it’s created a stir
So what do we make of this beautiful, brain-rattling mess of symbols left for us to ponder? Maybe it alludes to Bowie’s ultimate spiritual leanings, or his return to the Gnostic fold; maybe it’s the wrap-up for a character Bowie felt had outlived his purpose again. Maybe Bowie was warning us about his own death and we all missed the message—or maybe it was just a great story, period. There may not be any connection with Chambers after all, but I think it’s safe to say that like the King in Yellow, the brilliance of “Blackstar” and its timing, its mystery, and its relation to its author’s death will drive us all mad in admiration.