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Lyrics Series I 14 I From “China Girl”

I stumble into town
Just like some sacred cow
Visions of swastikas in my head
Plans for everyone

This is going to be a kind of preview of a post that’s coming in a few days that will mention the above lines. But before we get there, I want to spend a little more time with the specific lyrics.

Without getting into the circumstances that inspired these lines (I’ll get to that in the upcoming post), its one of several examples of where Bowie compares rock star status with that of either a dictatorial demagogue, or even a deity. Ziggy is often referred to as a messianic figure, and that’s what Bowie is getting at with that. So that’s the reference to a sacred cow.

What is a sacred cow? It’s a false idol. Think of the Golden Calf in the Exodus story (you remember, the false god that the Hebrews started to worship when Moses was taking too long up on Mt. Sinai). Not for the first time, Elton John evoked similar imagery. In “Bennie and the Jets,” which Bernie Taupin admitted was inspired in part by Bowie, Elton sings, “”We’ll kill that fatted calf tonight,” which brings in the idea of a rock concert as a religious ceremony. And no, the “fatted calf” is not the same as a “sacred cow,” but the language and concept is similar—- Elton John and David Bowie both make bovine metaphors to suggest rock stars are treated like gods.

But Bowie is also suggesting that rock stars are treated like dictators whose power is derived form a cult of personality. Bowie does this again and again in his songs. Consider the narrator’s perspective in “Big Brother,”

Please saviour, saviour, show us
Hear me, I’m graphically yours
Someone to claim us, someone to follow
Someone to shame us, some brave Apollo
Someone to fool us, someone like you
We want you, Big Brother, Big Brother

You can just about imagine the screaming, enthralled crowds offering up their agency and demanding to be ruled.

Think about the line from, “Rock and Roll With Me,” “I will take a foxy kind of stand, while tens of thousands found me in demand.” That song superficially sounds like a ballad in which the narrator is singing to his lover. But this line betray’s Bowie’s inability to distinguish between his lover and his audience. Ziggy was “making love to his ego”— here, Bowie’s character is making love to his audience.

This reminds me of politics, and I think it’s supposed to. I’ve known more than one politician who seeks love and acclaim from “the people” yet have difficulty with individual people. Bowie is not only in the same place, but he also is having trouble separating his role as an entertainer from that of a dictator. Thus, “visions of swastikas in my head.”

I’m not sure the extent to which Bowie actually had trouble distinguishing between his mission as an entertainer and that of a political or religious leader. I tend to think he’s just repeatedly amazed at the similar treatment received by all of the above. In any case, his stumbling entrance suggests that he knows that those “visions of swastikas” are delusional. The narrator of “China Girl” is pretty insecure. Whatever the “China Girl” is (that’s a whole other topic of conversation), the song’s narrator can’t live without it. To exert control, the narrator warns her not to mess with him on pain of his ruining everything she is. He offers to placate her with television — mass media, mindless entertainment— while offering her a blue-eyed man who wants to rule the world. Rule her world? Rule the whole world? At this point, the narrator can’t sort it out.

Bowie wrote the song with Iggy Pop, the latter of whom recorded it first for his 1977 album, The Idiot. The date is notable because its before Ronald Reagan was elected president, however having recently departed Governor Reagan’s California, Bowie might have had the Gipper in the back of his mind, as an entertainer playing the role of a leader, to disastrously hollow results.

In any case, the narrator of “China Girl” comes off as both pathetic and scary. The guy feeds off of adulation and affirmation, and lets everyone know he’ll lash out if those things are withheld. You wouldn’t want someone like that actually invested with real power.

Which brings us to Donald Trump. Tune in again on Saturday…

The video features Iggy singing his version, which you’ll note sounds more sinister than Bowie’s version from Let’s Dance, complete a with faux-Chinese guitar riff and fit for mass consumption.

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