After ten years of silence on the front of solo projects, in 2013, David Bowie released two single tracks in quick succession, each accompanied by a short film. The first, titled “Where Are We Now,” appeared unexpectedly on the Internet on the artist’s birthday, without announcement or warning. The second, “The Stars Are Out Tonight,” was released little over a month later, on February 27, 2013. Both tracks were included on the studio album The Next Day, which hit the shelves in March of the same year.
I won’t call the video that’s associated with “The Stars Are Out Tonight” a ‘music video.’ The extended intro and atmospheric nature of the opening verses immediately indicate that the song and short film were fabricated in unison, intended to exist in codependence. Unlike the low-budget, collage aesthetic of “Where Are We Now,” the “The Stars” begins with a series of official opening credits superimposed onto awkward, angled shots from the set, inciting undertones of visual tension. The cropped and angular tendency of the camera work and the overly-saturated color filter of the film evoke a sense of high production value and modern cinematic style.
Notably, the first characters encountered in the video are not David Bowie, but a middle-aged female, played by Tilda Swinton, whom later we presume to be his wife, and a young man—or woman—who slyly resembles Bowie’s younger self. The initially obscured shots of this Bowie look-alike begin the cycle of identity uncertainty, allowing for no real discernment as to whether the character is male or female, or if he or she is in fact supposed to be acting as a young Bowie.
The story begins to unfold, both lyrically and visually, as we encounter Bowie for the first time, and we are introduced to the robotic young celebrity couple, sleekly dressed and heavily made-up. The first guitar riff breaks on a shot of the ambiguous young musician, her costume and movements revealing breasts, confirming the suspicion that she is indeed acting as a reflection of Bowie.
The chic youthful couple who stalk the house also bear a skewed resemblance to Bowie and his wife. The lyrics pose them as young celebrities, referencing “Brigitte, Jack and Kate and Brad,” who “watch us from behind their shades.” Too, the adolescent Bowie persona, who has moved into the house next door, appears concerned by their parasitic presence on the street.
The next shots alter between a theatrical band practice featuring the young Bowie singing the verse and a hyper-suburbia scene of Bowie and his wife watching something on the television. The dramatic view of alternate Bowie and actual Bowie pressed against either side of the wall, makes obvious (perhaps a bit too obvious) the parallel between the two characters. Meanwhile, the bizarre obsessors have entered Bowie’s home. When the alien woman kisses Bowie in the night, to the lyrics “Waiting for the last move/ Soaking up our primitive world,” the young Bowie exhibits the expected shock, fear and disgust. But as the chorus comes in (“Stars are never sleeping”) Bowie’s face falls into a look of dismay.
This scene finally begins to expose some of the major themes of the song and film. The title lyrics take on several alternative readings. Of course the “stars” Bowie refers to are not literally cosmic balls of gas, but rather “a famous or exceptionally talented performer in the world of entertainment.” By creating parallel personas that reference his past and current career as a pop star, the song reflects on the then-and-now nature of the aging rock star. “The stars are out tonight,” could refer to young couple mimicking Bowie and his wife, increasingly changing their appearance to look more like the pair, symbolic of newer and younger performers that will replace Bowie in the limelight. But the line could also be interpreted to be Bowie’s acknowledgement of his imminent exclusion from current pop culture; he, as the “star,” is “out.”
But later the lines, as Bowie’s wife is consumed by the hypnotic movements of the young impostors, “Their jealousy’s spilling down/ The stars must stick together” indicate Bowie’s desire for the stars of his youth to endure the encroachment of new artists. But his wife is indeed compromised by their alien ways, and Bowie and his younger persona are left in camaraderie.
I believe that this late-career production by Bowie is one of his most complex and far-reaching. The biting lyrics about the “broke and shamed or drunk or scared” young celebrities reveal his criticism of the new generations of performers that will supersede him. The dual personas of himself evoke a nostalgic self-awareness of his career, touching on notions of time and mortality. Doubly, the fact that his younger entity is played by a women continues the fluidity of gender that Bowie advocated throughout his life. Overall, the implications of the song and video touch both past and future, speaking to the universal cycle of fame and stardom.