The Meaning Of The Man Who Sold The World - David Bowie's Tragic Tale Thursday December 15 2022, 8:00 AM
Yona Marie
Singer, Songwriter, Producer.
The Meaning Of The Man Who Sold The World - David Bowie's Tragic Tale

The Man Who Sold The World

David Bowie's unique and tragic song about a man who "Sold The World" is one of those tracks that you often hear and see people debating about to no end.

Some say it's about Bowie trying to talk some sense into a childhood friend of his. Some say it's a tale of Jesus and Judas. What theory is actually correct?

Around the time that Bowie first released the track, he wanted to keep the lyrical interpretations vague and general, not to give too much of the story away. This is what caused thousands of people to go on deep dives about the intent behind the lyrics.

But several years after the release and covers that wound up blowing up even more than the original, David thankfully gave us some insight through interviews and reflections on his past work.

With his insight and the similar themes that listeners have been able to agree on, the message behind the story is something we can successfully decipher. 

Before we discuss the overall meaning, it is important to highlight how the creative process went down since it can provide us with some insight into David Bowie's mind when he was writing the song. 

The Story Behind The Composition Process

This is one of my favorite examples of a song done in a rush, and as a professional songwriter, I'm a firm believer that some rushed songs can be an accidental goldmine.

Bowie was actually quite frustrated about how the entire album his entire third album, "The Man Who Sold The World" was done.

His producer Toni Visconti shared his frustrations with the project and stated that he told David, "I've had it; I can't work like this anymore".

David Bowie was in the process of trying new things with his writing style and creative process, which can be seen as him going through somewhat of an identity crisis at that stage of his music career, just turning 30. 

While Bowie's second album gave off more folk and acoustic vibes, this third album to a sharp turn toward more hard rock elements with a hint of blues.

His lyrics also became more experimental, exploring darker themes on mental health when compared to his earlier works. 

Paired with the story told in the lyrics, the instrumentation and effects featured in this song create a very distinct and dreadful atmosphere that has really stuck with listeners over the years. 

The Meaning Behind The Man Who Sold The World

The opening lyrics in the track are a direct reference to the poem "Antigonish" by William Hughes Mearns, which states, "Yesterday, upon the stair, I met a man who wasn't there. He wasn't there again today. Oh, how I wish he'd go away."


This poem reference, paired with the guitar riff repeated, sets the tone for the state of eerieness and madness that is reflected in the lyrical delivery of this song. 

"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" - David Bowie

Similar to the movie "Identity", a 2003 horror film that features these exact lines from the same poem, the song focuses on one character, that is (spoilers!) dealing with multiple personalities or multiple versions of himself. He is talking to a version of himself that he thought he had lost. 

In 1997, after years of being cryptic about the meaning behind the song, David said the following to BBC radio in an interview:

"I guess I wrote it because there was a part of myself that I was looking for. That song, for me, always exemplified kind of how you feel when you're young, when you know there's a piece of yourself that you haven't really put together yet – you have this great searching, this great need to find out who you really are."

"I gazed a gazely stare at all the millions here. We must have died alone a long, long time ago. Who knows? Not me; we never lost control. You're face to face with the man who sold the world" - David Bowie

David Bowie is talking to a previous version of himself, possibly before the fame and the millions of dollars, and having an identity crisis.

He thought his old self had died, but the new version and the old version of himself were still in control, causing a distortion. 

The only big question is the direct meaning behind the lyric "the man who sold the world." In this case, what is the world a metaphor for? Some say that the world he is referencing is his soul, while others say the world could be a reference to his sanity. 

Whatever "the world" is, a metaphor for, it is a part of him that he is deeply regretful of sacrificing.

Song Facts And Popular Covers

In retrospect, this is often referenced as one of the greatest David Bowie songs of all time.

But when it was first released, it barely made a peep in the music industry and wasn't even released as a single for the album. It was re-distributed in 1973

The song was made more popular when it was covered by Scottish singer Lulu in 1974 and reached number 3 on the UK charts. She hilariously quoted that she had no idea what the song was even about. 

The most popular version of this song was released by Kurt Cobain and the rock group Nirvana in the 1990s.

The song became so big that many people still associate this song with Nirvana and don't even realize that Bowie had previously released it. 

Popular Song Interpretations And Theories

A well-known theory going around that could match the story in the lyrics provided is that the song is a conversation between Bowie and an old friend that had a tough upbringing, to the point where he thought the friend was lost in the world. 

This interpretation explains that they are both now face to face again, seeing familiarities in each other.

They both had regrets and felt like they had lost themselves to the world, whether through the excess of wealth or the lack of trying to go after that successful lifestyle. 

Another popular theory is that this song, along with other songs on the album of the same name, was an exploration of the familial love and loss he was going through with a father who had just passed in 1969 and a brother who was dealing with mental health issues. 

One lesser-known interpretation of the lyrics is that it is a story about the loss of religious faith, and the featured conversation is between Jesus and Judas, where Judas is the man who sold the world or sold out and betrayed Jesus. 

Related Post: Funny, Inspiring, And Shocking Sayings About Rock Music


Yona Marie

As a session singer, writer, and producer that has worked with over 300 clients to provide high-quality jingles, singles, and features, Yona spends her time creating and marketing new music and helpful resources for creators. Check out Yona’s latest releases on her Spotify, her Youtube and share if you like it!

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