In 1969, David Bowie released a song called “Space Oddity,” about an astronaut named Major Tom who floats in outer space. Three years later, Elton John wrote “Rocket Man,” another song about a space man. These tracks are very similar both thematically and stylistically. They were even produced by the same man (Gus Dudgeon), and Elton was accused of ripping off David Bowie. But there are differences between them that make them both valuable contributions to the pop canon.
“Space Oddity” celebrates space travel. First of all, it incorporates a countdown and blastoff into the introduction of the song, and plays with the distinctive communication styles of NASA (“ground control to Major Tom”). The lyric, “And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear,” implies that Major Tom is a celebrity: one of the few courageous men to take on such a mission. And Major Tom seems excited, too – until he sets foot outside his capsule and realizes just how small and insignificant he is:
Here I am sitting in a tin can far above the world / Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do
Truly, despite the astronaut’s star status, there is nothing that he can do to affect the vast universe. He reduces the spaceship to a “tin can,” and the Planet Earth to “blue,” because he alone realizes that humankind and all its endeavors are negligible – in fact, meaningless – compared to the happenings of the universe. This insight creates loneliness in Tom, and the song conveys this mood. But musically, these lines aren’t tense, because he is resigned to his fate. By the end of the song, we are led to believe that, maybe to avoid reporting this troubling new insight, Major Tom is not coming back.
Maybe three years made all the difference, but in “Rocket Man,” space travel has become mundane. “Rocket Man” is based on a Ray Bradbury short story, about an astronaut who is ambivalent about leaving his family when he is sent to Mars. While the “rocket man” loves his wife and kids, he is also often absent emotionally; he probably chose his profession for the space (no pun intended) that it affords him. Elton John’s clever lyrics universalize the protagonist, by focusing on his feelings, rather than his profession.
“And I’m gonna be high as a kite by then”: could refer to the astronaut’s actual location in the sky, or it could refer to a mental state. Even if he’s not actually on drugs, he could still be “checked out” in another sense.
“I’m not the man they think I am at home”: the rocket man has secrets, even from his family. Those “at home” could also refer to civilians who admire his courage. In reality, the rocket man is not courageous, because he isn’t even brave enough to really devote himself to his loved ones.
“And all this science, I don’t understand / it’s just my job five days a week”: another brilliant line! The man doesn’t fully understand the implications of what he does, and he doesn’t really see how he makes a difference (and when you think about it, who does?). This line could refer to anyone who buries himself in his work without passion for it – or anyone who uses work to avoid relationships.
Musically, the song builds up toward every chorus, aided by drums, a quickening of rhythm, backup vocals, and even a “blastoff” synthesizer sound. The chorus is a simulation of the freedom that the rocket man feels when he leaves, which can be contrasted with the sorrow that’s conveyed in the verses. The chorus also has a roundness and repetition to it. Much like Major Tom, the rocket man isn’t going anywhere. Yes, he will probably physically go on his mission, and he will probably physically come back, but psychologically, the struggle between the man that he is and the man that he wants to be will go on for a “long, long time.”
These two songs beautifully convey loneliness by utilizing the popular space theme of the late ’60s – early ’70s. Both Major Tom and the Rocket Man are keeping the following secrets from the rest of the world: Tom is incapable of finding meaning in human endeavors, and the Rocket Man is incapable of opening himself up to the ones he loves. And these seemingly courageous men show themselves to be cowards.