At first we didn’t know what to make of Jessica Lange singing “Life on Mars?” in the season opener of American Horror Story: Freak Show—the carnival colors, the thick Teutonic accent, the weird eye shadow and powder-blue suit.
But over the past week the anachronistic track (Freak Show is set in the early 1950s, “Mars” was released in 1971) became an earworm for AHS fans.
And we’ve come to appreciate its relevance for Elsa Mars, the fame-hungry ringmaster desperate to make her “freakiest show” a success even as America turns its back on such oddities. (Even the song’s title includes a pun on her name.)
It wasn’t until later that we looked into David Bowie’s original version and realized Elsa’s appearance was inspired by Mick Rock’s original music video, in which Bowie sported a similar turquoise suit (designed by Freddi Buretti) and eye makeup.
The song, ostensibly about a young woman at the movies, touches on Marxism, capitalism, cultural bankruptcy and post-modern ennui.
“Lives and ideas have become so commoditized that revolution, like everything else, has even become just another brand,” one critic wrote. “It’s clear that social action here is a response to a market condition—”on sale”—and not a response to real convictions.”
Regardless, the song is infectious.
“[It’s] a quite gloriously strange anthem… at once completely impenetrable and yet resonant with personal meaning,” wrote the Daily Telegraph’s Neil McCormick, who ranked “Life on Mars?” as #1 on his 100 Greatest Songs of All Time list.
“You want to raise your voice and sing along, yet Bowie’s abstract cut-up lyrics force you to invest the song with something of yourself just to make sense of the experience. And, like all great songs, it’s got a lovely tune.”
The full version of Lange’s interpretation is available on iTunes. We can only hope some canny DJ releases a sickening dance remix.