David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World is one of those rare songs that are looked back on as one of an amazing artist’s best. While it was never released as a single and only appeared on the B side of reissues, the track would take on a life of its own and be covered by some other huge names. In this article, we’ll look at the composition of this song and the real meaning behind the words of The Man Who Sold The World by David Bowie.
How Did “The Man Who Sold The World” Come To Be?
The Man Who Sold The World served as the title track for Bowie’s 1970 album and was one of the final songs recorded for the album. It was a track that went very much under everyone’s radar when it was released.
Despite serving as the title track of the album, it was never released as a single. The song never gained mainstream attention until Scottish singer Lulu covered it in 1974, seeing it rise to number three on the UK Singles charts. Subsequently, Midge Ure and Nirvana would cover the song in the 80s and 90s respectively.
A retrospective look at the track was what made it one of Bowie’s best. Its haunting, dark atmosphere was something a bit out of his normal style and only became something he did often in the 90s. It stood out on its own album because it lacked the theatrics of his other songs, perfectly reflecting his dismissive attitude towards the track and how quickly it was written.
During the writing process for the entire album, he was rather frustrated with the project as a whole. His work schedule was catching up with him, and he essentially didn’t write until he had to, hence this one being written on the final day of recording. He would wind up referencing several poems, stories, and novellas with this one as he delivered the real message of the song.
One of the reasons this article is even being written is the lyrical composition of the track. He intentionally left everything as vague as possible, hiding bits of the story so as not to give everything away in the song. That’s why so many people have done deep dives into the lyrics and why many fans are clamoring for the real meaning of the track.
The Meaning Behind “The Man Who Sold The World”
One of the things that stands out the most with The Man Who Sold The World is the jarring and eerie lyrics. But they’re the thing that sets the stage for the entire story of the song. And, that setting falls right in line with the long line of references that this track draws on.
There are a lot of famous works out there titled “The Man Who Sold…” The Man Who Sold The Moon is a sci-fi novella, The Man Who Sold The Earth is a 1954 DC comic book, and there’s even The Man Who Bought The World, a Brazilian satire from 1968. While the song isn’t really connected to any of those things, Bowie definitely knew about them all.
The opening lines of the track directly pull from William Hughes Mearns’ poem Antigonish:
We passed upon the stair
We spoke of was, and when
Although I wasn’t there
He said I was his friend
Which came as some surprise
I spoke into his eyes
“I thought you died alone
A long, long time ago“
Using that as a clue, we can look at another piece of media that uses the same lines from that poem. The horror film Identity came out in 2003 and focuses on a person’s character, dealing with multiple personalities, and multiple versions of one person. At the time, Bowie was going through a similar identity crisis. He was becoming a big star and losing who he was, but he was also figuring out who he wanted to be.
In the song, he talks to a younger version of himself, likely the one before he got so famous. That version of him is having an identity crisis, with both his old self and his new self being in control at the same time.
Rising to the level of fame that he did comes with a lot of sacrifices. It’s almost like selling your soul and little bits of yourself, piece by piece. And maybe that’s the meaning of the metaphor behind ‘the world’ part of the song. It’s all about Bowie selling his soul and bits of himself to the point that he no longer recognizes the person he is today. For a song he wrote in a single day, it’s incredibly poignant and frankly, deeper than one would expect.
A lyrical analysis of the song can be related to his alter-ego Ziggy Stardust. While Bowie never forgot who he was, he sold the world—aka everyone else—that he had become Stardust. He laughed and shook people’s hands, but he was the one in control, not Ziggy.
In the end, those two final explanations are the best ways to look at the track. And they’re really the two that can be backed up by clues in the song, things going on in Bowie’s life, and the few interviews that he’s done about the song.
As a contributing writer for Music Grotto, Dakotah writes and produces professional music/media content. He works closely with editorial staff to meet editorial standards and create
quality content for the Music Grotto website. Dakotah is passionate about music in a wide variety of genres, from hip-hop to country and lo-fi to metal, and he enjoys creating music pieces for Music Grotto.