Americans want to believe in the future, that getting ahead and opportunity are still fundamental to being American.
“Freak out,” sang David Bowie, “in a moon-age daydream.” So echoes the motto of the last phase of electric life on Earth, touched off in earnest by the lunar landing, in a style that’s a little bit Apollo and a lot more Dionysus.
Most Americans likely remember Apollo 11 for the straightforward reasons: the triumph over gravity, the apogee of Cold War success before the decline initiated by Vietnam, the heroism and the heroes. Not until the end of the Cold War did America reach a similar peak, a moment when the whole country was symbolically unified, and conceptually united with the whole of humanity.
These unities were thoroughly televisual. TV was their medium. Americans watched the drama play out on their home sets; ten thousand New Yorkers gathered in Central Park to watch it on enormous silver screens. The landing brought together the Moon and the Earth, giving Americans a new perception of each as a whole captured at a glance. It was not just our greatest triumph, but the greatest triumph of electricity. Now, the whole world could see not only men on the moon but the whole of humanity, the entire Earth, from the standpoint of the void.
Yet America’s subsequent decline was electric, too. The late-twentieth-century revolutions, political, cultural, sexual, were televised, unthinkable without electric guitars, electric kool-aid acid tests, and the use of the electrified image to fracture, distort, whip up, and break apart. “Keep your electric eye on me, babe,” Bowie begged—or commanded. He knew the medium was the message. And in the trajectory of post-lunar rock and roll, we can vividly trace the lines of our dark American comedown, culminating in the crash of the electric social order we might call our cosmic civilization.
Darkness and Dismay
Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars blew away the Beatles’ pre-space vision of Earthly togetherness, the safe and almost neutered love-in proffered in songs like “All You Need Is Love” and, fittingly, “The End.” Bowie grasped, as did Bob Dylan, the highly-charged connection between carnal power and electric technology that surrounded the world. Dylan rightly described rock and roll as atomic music, as absolute and immediate as the Bomb; Bowie created and detonated space rock, just overhead, in the charged atmosphere of a televisual age.
This apocalypse—this unveiling—furnished Bowie with a brand-new way of shattering the old norms, and subverting the place of manliness in society. An infamous drape of the arm around guitarist Mark Ronson during his 1972 performance of “Starman” on Top of the Pops catapulted Bowie and the band to international fame. “We were terribly excited, and I think we took it on our shoulders that we were creating the 21st century,” Bowie later reflected. “That was the idea . . . we wanted to just blast everything in the past.” The need for such measures, Bowie’s work suggested—from the cabaret of “Lady Stardust” right up to the disfigured androgyny of “Rebel Rebel”—was in the impossibility of processing the human condition exposed by the moon age without presenting human sexuality under the fully electric conditions television had wrought: dominated and defined by pose, image, illusion, and imagination. The cosmic was the alien, the primal, the protean: “I’m the space invader / I’ll be a rock ‘n’ rollin’ bitch for you.”
Bowie’s electric existentialism channeled neither the long, strange teddy bear picnic of the Grateful Dead nor the cartoonish hijinks of the Fab Four’s “Yellow Submarine” and “Magical Mystery Tour.” Under the influence of LSD, Arthur Rimbaud’s “systematic derangement of the senses” had promised to fuse science and spiritualism into a key that unlocked William Blake’s “doors of perception.” But rather than easygoing, chummy enlightenment, dark occult currents invaded the scene. At his nadir in Hollywood, an obsessed and paranoid Bowie had his swimming pool exorcised.
Bowie had discovered just how deep were the eldritch sensibilities the electric age had retrieved. In turn-of-the-century England, Aleister Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis reconceived cosmic gnosticism and sex magic into a modern global religion; during World War II, real-life “rocketman” Jack Parsons, the co-founder of Jet Propulsion Laboratories, was made head of the world’s last surviving OTO lodge in Pasadena, California. By 1940, flush with government funding, Parsons spoke openly of using rocket fuel to reach the moon; by 1946, together with L. Ron Hubbard, he was engaged in a string of rituals, pulled from Crowley’s semi-autobiographical novel, to summon to Earth the divine mother of the titular Moonchild, “a supernatural offspring that would be the embodiment of ultimate power.”
Parsons, who accidentally blew himself up in the lab, didn’t live to see how far and how fast the moon age moved us from the worship of cosmic life to the enclosure of human death. Bowie did. In “Ashes to Ashes,” the Major Tom character Bowie had cast as a forlorn voyager becomes an all-too-Earthbound narconaut, a drugged-out exile frozen in the vacuum of inner space: “want an axe to break the ice, want to come down right now,” he now sang, “strung out on heaven’s high, hitting an all-time low.” Ziggy’s longing for his own moonchild to “press your space face close to mine” had been consummated. But their alien offspring was the emptiness of space itself, an annihilating black hole where no one, as the space horror of the 1980s informed us, could hear you scream.
But the crash was nowhere near over. By the 1990s, the universal vision of space in the traumatized American imagination had become, outside the precincts of Trekkies and Jedi enthusiasts, fully dystopian. Space became a metaphor for an inner void that long survived the death of those it swallowed. Compounding the lesson from Kubrick, Tarkovsky, and Ren and Stimpy alike, Failure’s harrowing 1996 art-grunge space opera Fantastic Planet chronicled the collapse of damaged romantic longing and heroin addiction into a single progression toward a Golgotha for the disincarnate. Marilyn Manson made these themes explicit in his 1998 album Mechanical Animals, on songs such as “Great Big White World,” where Manson’s androgynous star “dreamed I was a spaceman, burned like a moth in a flame,” and “Disassociative,” where he felt doomed to “float in fear, a dead astronaut in space.” In the opening cut of 2000’s Holy Wood, “Cruci-Fiction in Space,” Manson would finish his destruction of the Ziggy mythos of the sexy spaceman.
Can We Be Heroes?
It hasn’t returned since. Manson marked the end of the line of popular post-lunar occultism as a high art form. His erstwhile producer and mentor Trent Reznor found far greater success cleaning up, working out, and turning resolutely inward in his music, too, culminating in an Academy Award for his muted, ASMR-like sonic textures in his soundtrack to The Social Network.
And sure enough, Reznor’s path as an anti-Bowie—the two had collaborated fruitfully into the late ‘90s—had been opened by the giant technological leap for mankind that at last had moved our global and erotic consciousness out of the space age and the electric age alike. Steve Jobs, who reputedly admitted he sold his soul to the Devil on LSD in exchange for charisma, saw in the digital explosion a totalizing new aesthetic and ethical surround: one embodied first in the orblike and oracular iMac, and then, of course, in the transformation of Clarke and Kubrick’s vast and uncanny black monolith—a concretization of the radical unknowability of the universe—into a handheld commodity, the smartphone, the universal Kingdom of all knowledge literally “at hand.”
Jobs and the planetary social media enclosure his devices made possible augured a new anti-heroic age, one that oriented life around the archival memory of machines, not the imaginative power of humans. The slick, smooth interfaces of Jobs’ devices pulled us into a world where not just opinions but ideas and even creations were a dime a dozen, many interchangeable, most insignificant, the vast majority plowed under each day, or hour, to be remembered only by our servers.
“What Goethe began at Weimar in 1789,” Matthew Walther writes, Apollo 11 culminated: “the Romantic cult of the sublime prefigured in the speculations of Burke and Kant, an artistic juxtaposition of man against a brutal environment upon which he could project his fears, his sympathies, his feelings of transcendence.” That is what digital, ushered in by Jobs, took away. He was the last electric-age charismatic. He introduced us to a force that swiftly destroyed the Dionysian and Apollonian power of art and genius as it indeed had been known to Romantics since Goethe.
In so doing, Jobs consummated and then obsolesced the unique role of the man in erotic and imaginative command that had controlled the patterns of lust and violence in the electric age. This month’s drumbeat of lunar anniversary editorials at the New York Times portraying the occasion as fundamentally sexist and unequal draws its predictable groans, but in our digital age, the inherent heroism of the male breakthrough at the planetary level, whether of a Buzz or a Ziggy, is gone.
True, some women strain in this respect to become the new men, egged on by electric-age institutions and elites desperate to sustain some charge. Today’s final fit of occultism, in the hip pseudo-secular worship of crystals, tarot, appstrology, and the divine feminine, thuds continually against the overpowering digital teaching of a new iron law of human humility. As Leonard Shlain argues in his profound oddity of a book The Alphabet versus The Goddess, the gnostic concept of the female as a pantheistic power, so in tune with the electric age, finds a potent rival in the cosmic masculine of ages of the Word—where the Sun, in astrological terms, shines brighter than the Moon. With its infinite recordations, digital augurs a humbling of all would-be heroes. All must take their place within the totality—the finality—of its universal archives.
And so, fifty years after Apollo 11 returned to earth, the dawning age that leaves the moon landing in the past plunges us into a profound dissatisfaction with electric-age stories about what ultimate role it is that we play. In this uncanny impasse Americans come face to face with a Great Disenchantment unlike anything we have ever experienced—one that will retrieve for young men and women, whatever their readiness, a monumental rendezvous with destiny.