David Bowie’s death in January 2016 sparked a worldwide celebration of his life and music. Missing from the analysis of Bowie’s contribution to popular culture was a serious discussion of his 1967 novelty song, The Laughing Gnome. It was an appalling oversight. It is time to set the record straight.
The Laughing Gnome has always had its critics. One called it the most embarrassing example of Bowie juvenilia. Another wrote it off as the flop it deserved to be.
It is easy to dismiss The Laughing Gnome as an excruciating attempt to cram as many tortuous puns as possible into three and a bit minutes. Maybe the joke was ultimately to make The Laughing Gnome cringe-worthy rather than funny.
However, The Laughing Gnome can also be seen as an expression of a young artist willing to take risks, to not take himself too seriously, and try out different personas. A man with the courage to follow his creative instincts, wherever they may take him.
A question hangs over Bowie’s career that is yet to be resolved. Without The Laughing Gnome, would Ziggy Stardust still be waiting in the sky (Starman)? Would Major Tom eternally float round his tin can (Space Odyssey)? Did Bowie’s confidence to record The Laughing Gnome save him from getting stuck (in Suffragette City), lacking the freedom to constantly recreate himself and condemning us to a world devoid of the characters he introduced?
This question does not just apply to someone wanting to be a rock star. Psychotherapy patients can come face to face with their own inner Laughing Gnome. How they respond affects their psychological development and therefore their lives.
Psychotherapy usually begins with a difficult working through past traumas. In time, the patient begins to feel psychologically freer and starts to experiment. They wear different clothes and read different books. They are touched by a song or a movie. They stop pushing themselves hard and view the world through relaxed eyes. They engage positively with people they previously wrote off as stupid or inconsequential. They imagine developing a healthy relationship with a partner.
These changes can seem small. However, they signify substantial internal changes, a psychological broadening.
Most patients embrace their freer selves, relieved to have escaped the severity of their previous lives. It is the Laughing Gnome that creates the real challenge.
In this more open place, the unconscious throws up thoughts and images that are vague and childlike, out of sync with how the patient sees themselves and who they want to be. Patients will say, “I’m getting lots of images, but they don’t make sense.” The implication is they do not want these thoughts and images to be taken seriously.
It is an important moment in therapy as these thoughts and images are often the first communications from parts of the self that had previously been locked down by trauma. Like The Laughing Gnome, they need to be brought into the world, at least in the safety of the psychotherapy clinic. In this playful space, the patient’s internal world grows, and their creativity blossoms. They learn to be genuinely surprised by themselves.
David Bowie was not embarrassed by The Laughing Gnome. He saw it as an expression of his love of playing the fool. He was an inspiration to psychotherapy practitioners and patients.