Given that it’s very heavy on Catholic imagery, and also on the idea of subverting and questioning such imagery, the new video for David Bowie’s “The Next Day” was always going to be controversial. It’s proven too much so for YouTube, which pulled it down this morning. Happily, you can still see it on Vevo, which has given us plenty of time to deconstruct all the iconography on show. If you’ve watched the video and wondered what it all means, then wonder no longer. (Or, at least, wonder a bit less.)
The tone is set from the start — Gary Oldman’s priest punches a homeless man trying to get into the venue where Bowie’s playing, and the scantily clad door woman pockets the poor guy’s cash. Considering that giving alms to the poor is a pretty fundamental tenet of Christianity (and many other religions), the implication is clear: something’s wrong here. It’s an impression heightened by the obvious lust with which Oldman regards Cotillard’s character, who appears to be a prostitute.
But first, we see one of the more peculiar expressions of faith: taking to yourself with a cat-o’-nine-tails! Symbolically, this practice refers back to the Flagellation of Christ, wherein Jesus was whipped by Roman soldiers on the way to his crucifixion. It was particularly beloved of the Flagellants, a sect who were eventually expelled from the Catholic Church for taking the whole idea rather too far.
Blood is a constant theme in Catholicism, as we’ll see. The gentleman here is wearing a Cardinal’s robe, which means he’s a top-ranking official in the Church — basically, he gets to cast a vote when the Pope is elected. The scarlet coloring is an allusion to blood, and a symbol of the fact that a Cardinal is willing to die for his faith. But the lyric “They can work with Satan while they dress like the saints” implies that our Cardinal isn’t exactly a holy man, either.
Wine as Blood
The idea of wine symbolizing the blood of Jesus is as old as the Bible itself, and refers to Jesus giving bread and wine to his disciples at the Last Supper. The wine here looks an awful lot like actual blood, however, giving the scene decidedly sinister overtones (especially in light of Cotillard’s rather vampiric appearance).
Joan of Arc
A short-haired woman in armor… yup, we reckon that’ll be Joan of Arc.
Eyeballs on a Plate
A reference to fourth-century martyr St. Lucy (a.k.a. St. Lucia). Her name is taken from the Latin for “light,” and the whole eyeballs-on-a-plate business refers to the story of her eyes being put out as part of the torture she suffered at the hands of the emperor Diocletian for being a Christian. The story goes that God restored her sight, which is lovely until you think about the whole idea of an omnipotent creator letting her go through the ordeal of having her eyes poked out with a stick in the first place. Anyway. The point appears to be that various significant religious figures have gathered to bear witness to what’ll happen next.
Given her lack of eyes, this is presumably St. Lucy herself. Quite why she has insanely long eyelashes remains unclear, although it is worth noting for posterity that eyelashes have symbolized purity and virginity in the past — Plinius the Elder, for instance, wrote that “eyelashes fell out from excessive sex and so it was especially important for women to keep their eyelashes long to prove their chastity.”
Bowie as… Jesus?
A sackcloth robe, a humble stage that looks rather like the back end of a barn… Is Bowie — the man who made a famous cameo as Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ — setting himself up as Jesus here? His garb also evokes the robes of the Franciscans, whose vows of poverty certainly form quite the contrast to the hyper-materialist and profane display on show in the club. Sackcloth and ashes also symbolize mourning, for what it’s worth.
Kiss the Cardinal’s hand, get cash. It seems like a good deal, although it’s lent an ironic resonance by the lyrics, “First they give you everything that you want/ Then they take back everything that you have.”
Bowie points at Cotillard, and blood promptly starts spurting out of her hands. The Cardinal begins to weep. Stigmata are well-documented in Catholic literature, and involve the Holy Wounds (the wounds inflicted on Jesus as he was nailed to the cross) appearing suddenly on believers’ bodies. Curiously, they appear far more often on women than men. There are also echoes of menstruation, obviously, which might be why Oldman’s uptight priest looks appalled at the whole scene. The blood splashes all over the mysterious topless woman, who seems largely unfazed.
“You call yourself a prophet?!” shouts Oldman accusingly at Bowie. Jesus warned against following false prophets, although he was also condemned as one. It’s at this point that things get really weird — blood spurts everywhere, the various attendees start flogging one another, and Bowie takes cover behind the stage. And then…
One minute the freaky veiled woman is soaked in blood, the next minute she’s clean and pure. Well, now.
And then, finally, the fourth wall gets broken pretty comprehensively, in a tableau reminiscent of a Renaissance painting. Bowie thanks “Gary, Marion… and everybody” in a benevolent manner, before disappearing into thin air.