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Thoughts on “China Girl”

I originally wrote this as part of the lead-up to my interview with Lisa Perrott (click to link), who wrote David Bowie and the Art of Music Video. I had originally indicated that I was going to take down the teaser videos I posted prior to the interview because they appear elsewhere on this blog, but I’m leaving this one up because my comments might be of interest…

“China Girl” has become somewhat controversial, and I think misunderstood.

Bowie wrote the song with Iggy Pop in late 1976, after his flirtation with fascism was beginning to be taken seriously including by actual fascists, like the National Front. This was shortly after the picture of him waving, that was said to have been him giving a Nazi salute.

I think, with Ziggy, Bowie was trying to be the fake leader of a fake movement in part by using the most controversial thing he could think of — bisexuality — as a dividing line between us and them. It was a kind of manufactured identity politics designed to manufacture a fan base. Along the way he became fascinated with the relationship between the audience and the object of its attention, so he conflates being a rock star with a demagogic political leader and with a religious figure. So, after Ziggy ran its course he took up an even more controversial persona — the “Arian” Think White Duke.

But he wasn’t serious and became horrified when the National Front started using him for their own purposes. The (rather bad) movie Just a Gigolo ends with the Bowie character being killed in the crossfire between Nazis and Communists, and the Nazis take his body, dress it up in their uniform and use it to make his corpse a martyr for their cause. The image of him in a Nazi uniform in a coffin is the most arresting part of the film and something I have never seen reproduced outside the context of the film. I think he took the role in part as a reaction to the National Front incident.

So, I think China Girl was part of that counter-reaction and the beginning of a series of issue songs that he would make from time to time thereafter underscoring not what he was for, but what he was against— any of the precepts of fascism— imperialism, racism, war, gun violence, general oppression. These were rarely topics he addressed before 1976, but “China Girl” was the first attempt to deliberately counter the idea that he was actually a fascist.

I think the key lines are, “I stumbled into town, just like a sacred cow, visions of swastikas in my head; plans for everyone.” As a side note, I’ve seen the “sacred cow” part interpreted as some kind of Hindu reference, but I think he meant the term the same way Elton John did in “Bennie and the Jets” when he says, “We’re going to kill the fatted calf tonight”— a false idol that the crowds adored and ultimately killed, just like Ziggy, the “leper messiah.” So right there he conflates rock-stardom, religious idolatry and demagoguery. It also signals that the rest of the song should be viewed as being a statement against imperialism and racism— “I’ll give you television, I’ll give you eyes of blue, I’ll give you a man who wants to rule the world” is not supposed be taken as a good thing.

Iggy’s version is seedier and its meaning more transparent, but like all the songs on Let’s Dance, the upbeat commercialistic patina of Bowie’s version masks what the song is really about. The video, I think, gives other visual clues that we’re not supposed to take it at face value. There’s the most heterosexual imagery Bowie ever engaged in (at least up to that point) in the video, which I think was meant to be noticed that way. Despite being on a video for a song that’s on the same album as “Modern Criminal,” which, like everything else on the album seems like its light and meaningless pop on the surface but is actually something entirely different than it appears to be.

I didn’t pick up on any of this when I was a teenager watching the video on MTV in 1983, BUT even then I thought it was ironic.

Anyway, that’s my take!

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