How music about space became music about drugs - MIT Technology Review
The rock era and the space age exist on parallel time lines. The Soviets launched Sputnik in October 1957, the same month Elvis Presley hit #1 with “Jailhouse Rock.” The first Beatles single, “Love Me Do,” was released 23 days after John F. Kennedy declared that America would go to the moon (and not because it was easy, but because it was hard). Apollo 11 landed the same summer as Woodstock. These specific events are (of course) coincidences. Yet the larger arc is not. Mankind’s assault upon the heavens was the most dramatic achievement of the 20th century’s second half, simultaneous with rock’s transformation of youth culture. It does not take a deconstructionist to see the influence of the former on the latter. The number of pop lyrics fixated on the concept of space is massive, and perhaps even predictable. It was the language of the era. But what’s more complicated is what that concept came to signify, particularly in terms of how the silence of space was somehow supposed to sound.
The principal figure in this conversation is also the most obvious: David Bowie. In a playlist of the greatest pop songs ever written about life beyond the stratosphere, 1969’s “Space Oddity” would be the opening cut, a musical experience so definitive that its unofficial sequel—the 1983 synth-pop “Major Tom (Coming Home)” by German one-hit wonder Peter Schilling—would probably be track number two. The lyrical content of “Space Oddity” is spoken more than sung, and the story is straightforward: an astronaut (Major Tom) rockets into space and something goes terribly wrong. It’s odd, in retrospect, that a song with such a pessimistic view of space travel would be released just 10 days before Neil Armstrong stepped on the lunar surface. That level of pessimism, however, would become the standard way for rock musicians to write about science. Outside of Sun Ra or Ace Frehley, it’s hard to find serious songs about space that aren’t framed as isolating or depressing.
Space is a vacuum: the only song capturing the verbatim resonance of space is John Cage’s perfectly silent “4’33".” Any artist purporting to embody the acoustics of the cosmos is projecting a myth. That myth, however, is collective and widely understood. Space has no sound, but certain sounds are “spacey.” Part of this is due to “Space Oddity”; another part comes from cinema, particularly the soundtrack to 2001 (the epic power of classical music by Richard Strauss and György Ligeti). Still another factor is the consistent application of specific instruments, like the ondes martenot (a keyboard that vaguely simulates a human voice, used most famously in the theme to the TV show Star Trek). The shared assumptions about what makes music extraterrestrial are now so accepted that we tend to ignore how strange it is that we all agree on something impossible.
Unsurprisingly, the ambiance of these tracks merged with psychedelic tendencies. The idea of “music about space” became shorthand for “music about drugs,” and sometimes for “music to play when you are taking drugs and thinking about space.” And this, at a base level, is the most accurate definition of the genre we now called space rock.
The apotheosis of all the fake audio signifiers for interstellar displacement, Dark Side of the Moon (and its 1975 follow-up Wish You Were Here) perfected the synthesizer, defining it as the musical vehicle for soundtracking the future. Originally conceived as a way to replicate analog instruments, first-generation synthesizers saw their limitations become their paradoxical utility: though incapable of credibly simulating a real guitar, they could create an unreal guitar tone that was innovative and warmly inhuman. It didn’t have anything to do with actual astronomy, but it seemed to connote both the wonder and terror of an infinite universe. By now, describing pop music as “spacey” usually just means it sounds a little like Pink Floyd.
What has happened, it seems, is that our primitive question about the moon’s philosophical proximity to Earth has been incrementally resolved. What once seemed distant has microscoped to nothingness. When rock music was new, space was new—and it seemed so far beyond us. Anything was possible. It was a creative dreamscape. But you know what? We eventually got there. We went to space so often that people got bored. The two Voyager craft had already drifted past Pluto before Nirvana released Nevermind in 1991. You can see a picture of a black hole in the New York Times. The notion that outer space is vast and unknowable has been replaced by the notion that space is exactly as it should be, remarkable as it is anodyne.