For most of my 20s and early 30s, I was an avid –some friends might even say rabid — karaoke singer. I often sang Bowie songs, even when I knew it was a terrible idea. (“Ziggy Stardust,” anyone?) “China Girl” was a staple when I sang weekly at Deon’s karaoke gig at the now-defunct Irish Eyes, in Somerville, Massachusetts.
The other day, I was walking my daughter to school, when we began to sing together. I drifted from ABCs to “China Girl.” As the words came out of my mouth, I cringed and immediately switched to what she calls “The Number Song.” (That’s the pinball song from old school Sesame Street). It should be obvious why that happened. I mean. On its face, the song just feels like your typical Pinkerton bullshit. (Yeah, sorry-not-sorry, Weezer.)
I suck at writing about music, but the essence of my admiration for Bowie’s version of that song is that feels like sonic parody. It pokes fun at orientalism. A close friend who sang it at one of our karaoke spots in Atlanta said it always unsettled her to sing the “…visions of swastikas…” line because it was “the highest note in the song.” Is that the point? Or am I imagining it?
It’s in the white of my eyes.
Finally, I keep referring to “Bowie’s version” because, as you know, there’s an earlier Iggy Pop version. They co-wrote the song. And it wasn’t until I thought to play them back-to-back, that I could even begin to think of Bowie’s version as parodic. Both have the pseudo-Chinese lick/riff, but in Bowie’s version it feels so stark, clear, intentional. The music video doesn’t hurt. (Or maybe it does).
Anyway, this whole post is me trying to deal with my feelings about Bowie’s death. I am at a loss as I try to reconcile how gutted I felt about the death of someone I did not know, and who, like his musician cohort, did crappy stuff. But I did know his music, and it’s glorious.
Two videos. The first (h/t Erin McKeown) involves one of my favorite vocalists, Luther Vandross, who did the vocal arrangements on the Young Americans album. The second is the infamous “China Girl.”