From time immemorial, humans have looked in wonder at the cosmos and attempted to express their awe through art. Astronomers, from Ptolemy to Kepler, commented on the great dance of the heavenly spheres and the harmonies of the celestial bodies of Sun, Moon and Earth. Musicians and composers have simultaneously endeavored to compose a soundtrack to this cosmic dance.
Brian May: Rock icon, lead shredder of the infamous glam-rock quartet Queen, hailed as one of the best guitarists of all time by Rolling Stone magazine. But that’s Doctor May to you.
In 2007, May completed the PhD in astrophysics he began 36 years earlier before ditching the ivory tower for a career in rock. He was subsequently named chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University (an honorary role previously held by Cherie Blair, wife of former British prime minister).
But, Dr. May is not the only shining example of a marriage between music and astronomy. Modern acts have taken to expressing their celestial influences.
The moody, contemplative indie act Muse is just one of the latest to be inspired by the skies. The group picked up on the space rock sub-genre of fellow Brit acts David Bowie and Pink Floyd, whose psychedelic synth sounds and slow, drawling melodies spoke to a generation of youth dropping acid and looking at the stars. Muse is now bringing space rock back into vogue by blending the sounds of their predecessors with their own edgy brand of alternative rock.
Dr. May (who wrote several space-themed ditties for Queen including the kooky tale of interstellar travel, “39”) has praised their work and noted the stylistic similarities to Queen. “I like the way they let their madness show through, always a good thing in an artist,” May told the BBC.
Muse’s front man and conspiracy theorist Matt Bellamy scored an entire album based on his fascination with astronomy and obsession with science fiction. The album “Black Holes and Revelations” included an eerie tribute to the immense black holes at the center of galaxies aptly named “Supermassive Black Hole,” and the more light-hearted ballad “Knights of Cydonia” references a region in the northern hemisphere of Mars, home of the infamous “face” optical illusion.
One of Muse’s newest singles, “Neutron Star Collision (Love is Forever),” is a reference to the extremely rare event of two neutron stars spiraling desperately toward one another over the course of millions of years, climaxing in an explosion that can be seen for billions of miles. It is sure to be a big hit with the tweens when it debuts on the soundtrack for the latest in the Twilight saga, Eclipse.
But Muse is not the first pop act, nor the last, to express their fascination by all things Copernican. Lady Gaga’s “Starstruck” features the futuristic sounds of DJ/collaborator Space Cowboy. The Killers “Spaceman” provides a similar sound.
Sam Sparro wrote his contemplative electropop/funk-nouveau hit “Black and Gold” after looking into the night sky one night, feeling lonely and pondering the nature of the universe and the existence of the divine. “I was thinking about where we come from and where we're going–is there a God? Is He there? And black and gold was the color of the universe,” Sparro told Pop Justice.
The Aquabats’ pop-ska ballad “Martian Girl” speaks to human fascination with extraterrestrial life. The MC Bat Commander, a.k.a. Aquabats front man Christian Jacobs, croons to the object of his affections, a visiting “Martian girl from Planet V” with a taste for human flesh. The song is a reference to a fifth inner planet, Planet V, that some astronomers think may or may not have existed between Mars and the asteroid belt.
Rockers have been expressing cosmic fascinations in their music for decades.
David Bowie asked if there was “Life on Mars?” but his incomprehensible lyrics didn’t seem to have anything to do with space, much less the red planet. However, his magnum opus, “Space Oddity,” a paean to the fictional astronaut Major Tom, is one of the world’s most well-known cultural odes to astronomy. The BBC even played the song during its coverage of the moon landing. “Oddity” is perhaps rivaled only by Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” which lamented that “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids.”
A young Neil Peart’s love of science fiction led Rush to produce several songs speculating on the mysteries of the universe, the most popular being Rush’s futuristic heroic epic "2112" which tells the story of inter-galactic conflict 100 years in the future.
And Oasis’ “Champagne Supernova,” which had nothing to do with the actual phenomena of a massive stellar explosion, actually led to the naming of supernova SNLS-03D3bb after the song. When asked in an interview with the Times of London about what his astrological lyrics meant, Noel Gallagher of Oasis replied, “I don’t f***ing know. But are you telling me, when you’ve got 60,000 people singing it, they don’t know what it means? It means something different to every one of them.”
Tomorrow, Part Two will chronicle the influence of astronomy on classical and instrumental pieces.