Thursday, August 13, 2009

"China Girl" by David Bowie (1983)

More than one significant voice in online punditdom has declared Starship’s “We Built This City” the single worst song in the history of recorded sound. I have to admit that that song’s vacuity is tough to beat.

For me, though, I’m nominating “China Girl” as the worst song in the history of the universe. My particular hatred of this song has largely to do with the fact that it was created by the same human who had, just in the previous few years, created music as divinely transcendent as “‘Heroes’” and “Under Pressure”. Undoubtedly following Bowie through the years will always be a difficult task, not because of his stylistic jumps but because of his not-too-occasional lapses into toe-curling banality. It’s an ongoing thing. I mean, how to reconcile that the very album that contains the great “Rebel Rebel” and “1984” could actually be titled after the completely horrible “Diamond Dogs”?

Oh, and there was Tin Machine. In fact, there was the entire 1980s…

Bowie pissed all over the 1970s. His 1970s discography is such an embarrassment of riches that, by the time Scary Monsters came out, the fact that the album wasn’t up to much didn’t stop it from being a triumphant coronation. So much so that Bowie was able to hop from Elvis’s record company to EMI, the label the Sex Pistols had so recently decried. Eager to suck that corporate teat, Bowie suddenly put on a suit and bleached his soul of anything approaching ‘edge’, ‘passion’, ‘integrity’ or ‘enjoyable music’. He came out with an album called Let’s Dance. As Reagan and Thatcher celebrated recent victories, this new plastic-Bowie sold by the boatloads.

The album is, from start to finish, garbage. It’s all bathed in echo, with Bowie’s basso ridiculoso crooning/groaning over top, cheesy background vocals, cheesy guitar, and… shudder… 80s saxophone.

Is there anything more terrible than the sound of a saxophone honking on a song made in the 1980s? I have no real qualm with that particular instrument, and I love 80s music, but the two just do not go together. From 1980 to 1989, the saxophone almost consistently lowered the quality of songs it was on.

Oh, sorry, was I talking about “China Girl”? “Let’s Dance” and “Modern Love”, the other two singles from this album, may well feature in the top ten of worst songs ever recorded. However, they don’t quite make my skin crawl as much as this song. Apparently, it’s a ‘cover’ of a song he co-wrote with Iggy Pop before his creative bankruptcy. I must admit having never heard the song. Iggy Pop acolytes claim it’s ‘subversive’. Maybe. Maybe the garbage lyrics are in some way a ‘statement’ on east-west relations when handled by Mr. Pop. However, in Bowie’s mouth, they are nauseatingly ridiculous, as he sings, completely without irony, that he feels ‘tragic like Marlon Brando’, that he ‘stumbles into town just like a sacred cow’ and that when he gets excited, his ‘little China girl says “obey me, just you shut your mouth”’. All with a little ‘Oriental’ guitar riff on top.

And it comes in service of a video featuring him pulling the sides of his eyes ‘Chinese-style” and, later, rolling around bare-assed on the beach with said ‘Chinese girl’. Whether all of this is meant to be sexy or merely repulsive is never made clear.

For Bowie, it scarcely got any better than this for a good ten years. If a sadder tragedy has ever been seen in the annals of modern music, I know it not.

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  1. The song was weird and the video was just plain creepy lol I tottally agree here!

  2. David Bowie was at his peak in the 70s and at his bottom in the 80s. I appreciate that you don't like his music but I do. However, I agree that China Girl is a horrible song.

  3. while I dont agree with all of the assessments of all these songs, I really truly do love reading your opinions and wish there were far more new entries on this blog. I'd spread this around to all friends and fellow musicians for sure.

  4. Agree about China Girl. I feel the same about most of his stuff from the late 70s and beyond. I came on just to point out a couple of really great 80s songs with saxophone:
    Just the Two of Us -- Bill Withers
    Careless Whisper -- Wham!
    Who Can It Be Now? -- Men At Work

    I'm no fan of 80s music in general and the sax is far from being my favorite instrument, but these particular songs, in my opinion, are great 80s songs where the sax is put to good use.

  5. A few more great sax songs from the eighties—“Rio” by Duran Duran, “Maneater” by Hall and Oates, “Urgent” by Foreigner, “True” by Spandau Ballet, and any number of fantastic Romeo Void songs—including “A Girl in Trouble” and “Never Say Never”.