This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #173: China Girl by Iggy Pop.
Yes! You read that correctly. The song, “China Girl”, made famous by David Bowie on his album, “Let’s Dance” was, actually, a cover version of a song that he helped his buddy, Iggy Pop, to record during their “Berlin years” together in the 1970s. The original version of “China Girl” is sung by Iggy Pop, in a far grittier, more rock n’ roll style. It was from the first of the three albums that he and Bowie recorded together called, “The Idiot”. So, for those who thought this was a Bowie song all along…..Suuuuuuuuuuuurprise! Technically, even the original version of “China Girl” is kinda, sorta a Bowie song because he wrote the music for it and helped produce it and even played keyboards for it when it was recorded and during the initial tours to support it. So, you wouldn’t be totally wrong to call “China Girl” Bowie’s song all along. However, having said that, there are three very distinct stories behind this song and it is those stories that we will talk about today. So, let’s get to those stories and find out what “China Girl” is really all about.
Let’s get the darker story out of the way first. As you may remember, the whole reason that Iggy Pop and David Bowie ended up together in Germany was because Iggy Pop had become addicted to heroin and his friend, Bowie, was trying to help him regain his health. So, there is one version of the story of this song that suggests that “China Girl” is about heroin. In “street parlance”, “China White” is a form of heroin and “girl” is a term commonly used to refer to cocaine. Taken together, in speedball form, it becomes highly addictive. (***I know this from research only and not from personal experience. Lol). So, writing about the power of the substance that caused his addiction seems like a plausible explanation for a song like “China Girl”.
“I’m a mess without my China Girl.
Wake up in the morning, where’s my little China Girl?
I hear her heart beating, loud as thunder
I saw these stars crashing down.”
I can only imagine that kicking a drug addiction can be hard. If you look at the lyrics to this song, it is easy to read meaning into them from an addiction perspective. So, maybe, just maybe, “China Girl” is a song Iggy Pop write as he was trying to kick his heroin habit.
The second story is also an Iggy Pop tale. In this case, it is an addiction of a different sort…..desire. Around this time in his life, he came into contact with a Vietnamese woman named Kuelan Nguyen. Some have made the statement that Nguyen was to Iggy Pop as Yoko Ono was to John Lennon. She was many things to Iggy Pop during his time in Berlin and was certainly a provocative presence in his life for awhile. But that relationship came and went; mostly due to how unstable Iggy Pop was in his own life. However, Nguyen obviously left a void that Pop was seeking to fill so there is a large school of thought that suggests that the song, “China Girl”, is actually written about Nguyen. If you reread the lyrics I used above but, instead of drug addiction, substitute Nguyan and, well, whatta ya know, the lyrics make sense that way, too. So, it is entirely possible that “China Girl” is a song written by a man about a woman he desired, in which case, it tells a tale as old as Time.
Finally, let’s get to David Bowie. He covered the song in 1983 as part of his monster selling album, “Let’s Dance”. Now, if you remember the post we did about the song, “Let’s Dance”, you will know that it was about racism toward Indigenous peoples of Australia. Obviously, Bowie was in a more political headspace at this time in his life because he is on record as stating that he wanted to use his public platform to tackle the issue of racism in all of its forms. Thus, he took his pal’s song from a decade and a half earlier and added a few tweaks in studio that caused the tone of the song to become about how white people view Asians and, in particular, what some of those Asian stereotypes are and how wrong it all is. One of the ways Bowie managed to change the song were by adding a bit of an Asian-themed melody to the start of the song and, as well, sprinkling it in various places throughout the song, too. But, the main way was via the video that accompanied the song. In that video, Bowie created a play in which he starred as a white lorthario-type character who has an inter-racial tryst with an Asian model. The fact that their union was so heated with sexual tension showed more than words could ever have said about the desirability he felt toward someone of a different race. But, at the same time, the fact that the song always only refers to her in demeaning terms such as “my little China Girl” and never gives her a name and thus, an identity, shows how racially insensitive we, as white people, can be when we view those from different races as being “all the same….you can’t tell them apart” and so on. The music video for “China Girl” by David Bowie won the award for “Best Music Video”, beating MIchael Jackson’s “Thriller”.
So, is “China Girl” a song about drug addiction, sexual addiction or is it really about racism? Who knows? Both Iggy Pop and David Bowie have, at times, made reference to all three scenarios during interviews so, what the real answer is, I guess, is up to you and your own interpretation. What I take from this song is that a good song is a good song is a good song, no matter who sings it. I like both versions of “China Girl”. I really like the grittier, more rock-like way in which Iggy Pop releases his demons via the lyrics to this song. In fact, it has been said that he can, at times, become overwhelmed with emotion while singing; especially, the line, “It’s the white of my eyes” and, often, he ends up exiting the stage at that point, leaving his band to complete the song on their own. David Bowie’s version is much more polished and he, obviously, has a much cleaner, purer and stronger singing voice. His version of “China Girl” has always ranked near the top of my favourite Bowie songs of all-time. So, for me, this is a win-win situation because I like both versions of the song very much. That speaks to the strength of this song, as it was originally written. A good song spawns good cover versions, which is certainly the case here.
So, get ready for a treat! Here are two great versions of the same great song! First, as always, I give the original singer the lead video so, we will start with Iggy Pop’s version of “China Girl”. As mentioned yesterday, he and an all-star back-up band did a killer version of this song on a TV show called “Austin City Limits”. That is what you will see here. What a terrific performance! As for David Bowie, for his video, you will get the original, “official” video that ended upwinning the award for Video for the Year. So, without further delay, here is “China Girl” by Iggy Pop and by David Bowie. Two great songs by two great friends. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, “China Girl” by Iggy Pop, can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “China Girl” as covered by David Bowie, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Iggy Pop, can be found here.
The link to the official website for David Bowie, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.