An astral playlist of songs devoted to the stars, or with outer-space-like motifs. Perfect for evoking the particular flavor existential dread that comes with recognizing your utter insignificance, spacing out to late lone lullabies, or if you’re a stoner who thinks space is like, totally cool man.
To Rush fans, the inclusion of the Cygnus duology is an obvious choice for this playlist. Rush, and especially their primary lyricist, Neil Peart, tell an allusion-dense and artistic epic about a hero aboard his trusty spaceship. The ship, the Rocinante, is named after the horse companion in Cervantes’ Don Quixote. This allusion to the literary madman Alonso Quixano conjures a vision which casts man exploring the vastness of space as the fool stumbling through the world he poorly perceives, in search of justice, to undo wrongs. The first minute or so of the song blends muted notes a la “deep sea documentary” with percussion that delays like an echo. Of course, nothing would actually echo in space because it is a vacuum, but the “echo” of the percussion serves to elicit the sensation of being in a large, open space such as…well, space! This intro period, paired with the fantastically syncopated bass riff that follows (Geddy Lee’s bass tone here reminds me of the tone that Flea from RHCP uses on their cover of “Higher Ground”) is the reason I have chosen to feature this, the first half of the saga, which originally spanned two albums! As for the name of the song itself, we had to expect there would be some reference there. Indeed, Cygnus X-1 refers to an X-ray emitting black hole 6,000 light years from our sun. The chaotic layering of instruments which occurs after the inital intro to “space” therefore may be taken to be our hero, aboard the Rocinante, encountering the chaos and majesty of a black hole.
Walking on the Moon|The Police
Sting, the lead singer and bassist of The Police, reportedly wrote this song drunk after a gig, while pacing around his hotel room. “Walking on the moon” was originally “Walkin round the room”, which doesn’t sound nearly as cool. Despite the obviously space-oriented title of the song, the lyrics actually use a moonwalk as a loose metaphor for being in a potentially doomed relationship
Some may say
I’m wishing my days away
And if it’s the price I pay
Tomorrow’s another day
I may as well play
but being happy or illusioned by it…
Giant steps are what you take
Walking on the moon
I hope my legs don’t break
Walking on the moon
We could walk forever
Walking on the moon
We could live together
Walking on, walking on the moon
One of the main reasons I added this to the playlist is for the interesting take on “space”. Despite all being related to space, the songs on the playlist are supposed to represent different styles and different feelings that artists portray through space and the unknown. In the case of Walking on the Moon, Sting and The Police bring in a jazzy, eccentric vibe to the playlist. The guitar hits at the beginning, adorned with a bit of chorus but later played rather staccato, are a unique addition which meshes well with the uniqueness of using a reggae-style song to engage with outer space!
Life on Mars|David Bowie
Emerging from Bowie’s escapade through various sweeping fusions of pop styles known as Hunky Dory, one of the best-known songs from the illustrious artist brings us yet another unique take on space. Bowie himself has described the song as written from the perspective of an unhappy young person, but also as a love song.
“A sensitive young girl’s reaction to the media…she’s living in the doldrums of reality, she’s being told that there’s a far greater life somewhere, and she’s bitterly disappointed that she doesn’t have access to it” – Bowie circa ’97
“You fall in love, you write a love song. This is a love song.” -Bowie circa 1990
Perhaps the answer to this lies in some fusion of the two. Bowie fell in love with a girl who was disillusioned with the messages she was seeing in the media. Perhaps it was love of what he saw in her, rather than love of her, which lead to the end of their short affair. In any case, Bowie uses the question “Is their life on mars?” in juxtaposition to many other questions or issues raised by the song
Sailors fighting in the dance hall
Oh man! Look at those cavemen go
It’s the freakiest show
Take a look at the lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man! Wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?
In the minutiae of life and the saccharine flavor of promises of a better life, it seems that the almost absurd question “Is there life on mars?” serves to put everything in perspective. On one hand, the girl is almost desensitized to the movies, music and other media of her time, at the same time, she is unable to access that which she is most sensitive to. Bowie sings the question in an almost pleading, deliberately poorly controlled wail at the end of many of the choruses. The question of life in the universe is at once the most meaningful question and the most insignificant or absurd pursuit.
Onward to the Edge|Symphony of Science
In the midst of tracks artfully using space as a metaphor or writing epic tales with celestial backdrops, “Onward to the Edge” sticks out like a planet in the night sky. Doing one better than just writing about space, Symphony of Science takes an evocative piano melody and overlays auto-tuned clips of famous scientists, like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Cox, talking about space. If you’ll allow me to wax a bit poetic about the song: rather than cheapening the feel of the song by using literal quotes about space from actual lectures or interviews, “Onward to the Edge” strikes us more as space using art than art using space. In other words, deliberately using less artistic license sheds light on the idea that space, inherently, is beautiful or evocative. Instead of co-opting space to engage human emotion, this track engages human emotion to enhance the experience of space.
There is a powerful recognition that stirs within us, when we see our own little blue ocean planet in the skies of other worlds.
Although not as heavy-handed and literal as “Onward to the Edge”, “Contact” is another track off this playlist which relies on sampling real recordings, and seems to really be about space, rather than space as a metaphor for X. For me, the analog-sounding synthesizer riff makes me think about how space travel or ships used to be portrayed when I was growing up in the mid nineties. Beeps and boops, flashing lights, big tacky buttons, etc.. The prominent recorded drums add a rock feel to the song, which fits really well because, I don’t know, takeoff, fire, rock n’ roll? This song is unique among the tracks on the playlist because here the artists focus very much on the actual takeoff of Apollo 17 as the central locus of the song. The last minute and a half of the song are essentially just a stylized recording of the engines powering up and actually lifting off.
When Daft Punk were putting the song together, it became clear that it needed some real recordings, and a “liftoff” type vibe. My guess is that these recordings fit better into the song than expected, because rather than augmenting the song, these seem to play a highly centric role. In addition to audio footage from the launching of Apollo 17, NASA also granted Daft Punk access to all of their mission recordings to sample from. Given this wealth of options, the artists chose to include a recording from the Apollo 17 mission, wherein astronaut Eugene Cernan is describing an object seen out the window of their spacecraft.
“Hey Bob I’m looking at what Jack was talking about and it’s definitely not a particle that’s nearby. It is a bright object and it’s obviously rotating because it’s flashing, it’s way out in the distance, certainly rotating in a very rhythmic fashion because the flashes come around almost on time. As we look back at the earth it’s up at about 11 o’clock, about maybe ten or twelve diameters. I don’t know whether that does you any good, but there’s something out there.”
The quote gives an exciting or mysterious vibe to the whole song. What is that object in the distance? As fixated as human stories are with exploring the unknown, a lone and unidentified celestial object is about as unknown, distant, and mysterious as it gets. In the end it turned out that the object was some debris from their ship, which is highly anti-climactic, but somehow seems even more fitting. One of the producers on the track, Thomas Bangalter, described the choice of Cernan’s quote to end the album as important because, he was the last man to walk on the moon, some forty years ago.