What does Bowie’s Major Tom mean?

The David Bowie song has taken a lifetime to decipher. When I first heard it, I though it was a groovy song tuned to the psychedelic times -this is the most common interpretation that I got on the internet. Here are the lyrics.

Ground Control to Major Tom
Ground Control to Major Tom
Take your protein pills and put your helmet on
Ground Control to Major Tom
Commencing countdown, engines on
Check ignition and may God’s love be with you
Ten, Nine, Eight, Seven, Six, Five,
Four, Three, Two, One, Liftoff
This is Ground Control to Major Tom
You’ve really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear
Now it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare
“This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today
For here
Am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do
Though I’m past one hundred thousand miles
I’m feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much she knows”
Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you….
“Here am I floating round my tin can
Far above the Moon
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do.”

It’s after the passage of 42 years that I understand the true meaning of the song. The song has to do with transformation. The hero is an astronaut. In that era, astronauts were the straightest of straight arrows. Buzzcut illuminati of American manhood, these men were walking statues of virtue, and for Bowie, an easy group to symbolize as the American Everyman, who worked for a large corporation, drove an American car out to a suburb, with a pretty wife and cute children.

The disembodied voice of Houston is in fact the voice of society and her expectations. It is also the voice of authority. When Major Tom leaves his government-issued cocoon, he undergoes a transformation. He’s floating in a most peculiar way, and the stars look different today. It is the awakening of the man, and he understands he can’t go back to the way things were. This happens to some men after they reach the top of the hill and look back and then look forward. Some can’t help themselves and decide to go sideways. The middle-aged man is typically at the height of his powers, but is in essence impotent in the face of the inexorable passage of time, the enormity of the universe, and unbearable blueness of the Earth.

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